Maintaining Utopia

All bureaucracies are to a certain degree utopian, in the sense that they propose an abstract ideal that real human beings can never live up to.

David Graeber, “The Utopia of Rules”

... time and its allies are busy twenty-four hours a day assaulting our historic property. With a plan and the right tools, you can hold the line.

“Housekeeping for Historic Sites” training video, Northeast Museum Services Center, National Park Service, 1996, screened at Old Economy Village for staff and volunteers

A lot of my projects and goals are in limbo. I want to sort and organize objects in storage, but there is no point until after the capital campaign and the leaking humidity and rust problems in storage are fixed.

Sarah Buffington, Curator, Old Economy Village


Museum and archival maintenance standards often point to their own unsustainability and eventual demise. Idealized “environmental conditioning” specifications fantasize an impossible reality: a world without dust, decay, bias, human error, or budget cuts. When does care for a specific memory, ghost, or object fade and become overtaken by a commitment to protocol, systematic procedure, and data points? Environmental and ideological conditioning often collapse and enmesh within practices of preservation. National mythology naturalized and propped up by places demarcated as worth the labor of remembering.

In 2017, the artist spent three months at Old Economy Village (OEV) a regional museum and historic site to learn more about the living history of historic maintenance. Located along the Ohio River 18 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, OEV “preserves and presents the life, thought, and material culture of the Harmony Society,” a religious, utopian, and socialist separatist community that settled in Pennsylvania in 1805. Old Economy administers six acres of land including 17 original buildings and recreated orchards and gardens. The collection is home to roughly 16,000 objects ranging from original furniture and paintings to mail correspondence, an unfinished replica of the Harmonists’ public natural history museum, and the coded traces of practicing alchemists.

As a living history museum, the lines between historic and non historic object are continually blurred. The entire site and grounds become an historic object – living plants are part of the collection, an accessioned stand-in and replica of what no longer exists. The staff works to recreate life in the 19th century to the best of their ability with consistently declining financial resources, volunteers, and staff. Educators focus on the tasks that were required to maintain the original utopian project. They reenact outmoded forms of craft and labor for school children while enacting contemporary labor in the hopes of maintaining a more recent humanist project threatened by unsustainability: the museum itself.

Maintaining Utopia examines the ritualized behaviors of care surrounding historic maintenance and the codification of history and knowledge. Developed from the artist’s fieldwork at Old Economy Village, the exhibition combines video, photography, and sculpture to generate a new museum collection that highlights human actors, loss and fragility, the common reality of operating without enough information, and the skewed and incomplete nature of knowledge production – flawed and inscribed by the tools at hand.

Maintaining Utopia was made possible with the support of the Carnegie Mellon Graduate Education GuSH Research Fund and the generosity of the staff and volunteers at Old Economy Village.


Erin Mallea is a multidisciplinary artist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Working across media, her art practice is rooted in a generative research process in which she maps the complexities of literal and symbolic constructions of place and the past and present of the spaces she inhabits. Collapsing natural and national history, Erin utilizes everyday encounters as a starting point to examine larger taxonomies and systems of producing knowledge and memory within the American landscape. Contextual, processual, and often public in nature, Erin’s work implicates herself as an individual navigating local organizations, bureaucratic systems, archives, and institutions of memory.

Erin has exhibited and produced educational programming nationally. She has used a picnic table beside a lake in the Mt. Hood National Forest as a collaborative art-making space, is finally gaining traction with her partnership proposals to Carnegie Mellon University Grounds and Facilities, and recently gave a presentation to the Allegheny County chapter of the “Colonial Dames of America” advocating for the ethical memorialization and representation of an historic oak tree. Erin is currently a MFA Candidate ('19) at Carnegie Mellon University.


Exhibition Opening:

Friday, February 2nd, 7–10pm

Public Hours + Ongoing Performance:

 Sat + Sun, Feb 3rd + 4th, 3–6pm