Please enjoy this post “7 things you (probably) didn’t know about conservation” by museum conservator Angelica Isa in preparation for her debut salon, “The Other Conservation: The Role Of Heritage In The 21st Century.”
P.S. If you want to read more from Angelica, follow her blog here.
What do you know about the “other” conservation?
You know, the one that doesn’t have to do with chaining yourself to trees and throwing canned foods at paintings. How many things can you say about “art” conservation off the top of your head – without Googling anything first? This might be the question I would like to start with when we sit down to start the ii salon I will be hosting on December 1st. I’ll help you get started:
- Conservators fix things
- Conservators work in museums
Tell me truthfully. Did I pretty much cover it all? Talk about sad!! And I don’t mean shame on you for not knowing more. I mean, shame on conservators for not making more information public knowledge!
This is why talking about the “other” conservation is important too. What can we expect will be the future of our shared cultural heritage if we know nothing about the people who make it their life’s work to protect it and the field that influences decisions on it?
The destruction of shared heritage: Aggression vs. negligence
During the recent past, we have seen different groups attack cultural heritage and contentious objects as political statements. From the ghastly destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001 to the urban vandalism on public statues and the latest bout of liquefied vegetables being thrown on (glass-protected) masterpieces, attacking heritage and public art is a thing. Why? If it’s important enough to cause a stir by being attacked, why isn’t it equally important to know about how it’s cared for when it’s not being actively destroyed?
In a slightly less aggressive but no less destructive vein, we have seen museums, historic properties and cathedrals burst into flames a lot recently too with the most famous examples being the Notre Dame Cathedral and the National Museum of Brazil. Why are important cultural heritage sites and museums bursting into flames around the world?
There is an irony to be found here. If we are going to be so angry about the destruction of art and heritage without being hypocrites, shouldn’t we at least be taking care of it most of the time? I haven’t counted but chances are heritage gets even less funding than climate-change action.
In the 19th century, heritage was used for nation building. In other words, it was referenced by governments and artists for the purpose of building national unity and identity. It was exalted and revered as we recognised the craftsmanship of the past. Victorian poets were literally writing odes to old buildings (does anyone do that still?). So, what is the role that heritage has to play today?
Yes, it’s true that we are now hyperaware of the negative aspects of history, but have material remains been relegated to the role of passive hostages to whatever political movement that questions societal choices and beliefs, past or present?
The sad truth is, if we don’t figure out why we need heritage and publicise it properly, we might not have any left to worry about soon.
If a conservator had to go throw soup at something to call attention to the heritage conservation crisis, what would that thing be?
Having the conservation conversation
I am absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to bring the conversation about heritage conservation into a salon format where we can openly discuss any questions, thoughts, and ideas you may have about it.
Conservation is such a broad field with so many philosophical, anthropological, historical, and technically scientific aspects to it that, even if you know nothing about conservation itself, you will be able to contribute from your own place of expertise.
I would like to pique your interest and start getting your brain juices flowing with the following facts about conservation that you, most likely, didn’t know about.
1/ About 95% of museum objects are in storage*
And chances are you’ll never see them or know where they are. In fact, chances are even the museum staff don’t know what’s there either. Museum collections are so extensive and have been collected for so long that it would be impossible to show you all of it. Most of it may not even be in conditions that would make it possible for objects to be displayed unless a serious amount of money was put into them. If you are lucky, you will live close to some extremely rare museums around the world that have open storage access.
2/ Cleaning is a destructive activity
A question conservators must ask themselves a lot and which you will probably never have to ask yourself is “how clean is TOO clean?”. Not all dirt is created equal. “Original” dirt is called ethnographic dirt and it is common not to clean it off at all because, as you well know, once you clean something, you really can’t put the grime back on. If it turns out there was something invaluable in that ancient grime that would have given key information about the object (like leftover pigments or food remains), well it’s gone now – you messed up.
3/ Conservation ethics and theory have shaped your museum visit experience – and you didn’t even know it
In fact, as conservation ethics evolves, it will continue to shape your museum visit experience – and unless you are actively looking out for it, you still won’t know it! How does this even work?
Note the previous point about cleaning being a destructive activity? This wasn’t always the way. The late 19th and early 20th century conservators viewed things very differently. Metals had to be shiny and new looking. Why would any museum visitor want to see some fancy Roman jewellery with corrosion all over it?
Old treatments had the goal of trying to find the “authentic” look of an item. As conservation theory evolved, we realised that words like “original” and “authentic” are deceptive. If you have an object that has had a 200-year lifespan of use, how much history would you have to strip away to get to the so-called “original” and would this even be a true original after all the treatment you just did? And what about all the life history you just stripped away?
Another changing practice has affected visitor experience more directly. Have you ever visited museums with handling collections for the kids? This was definitely not a thing before! The advent of handling collections made up of replicas or even of original objects which can be used for educational and accessibility purposes is a relatively recent development as conservators step away from their traditional “gatekeeping” role.
And let’s not even start with the ethics around restorations! The objects you may have seen on display that were restored in the past may be showing you a made-up educated guess version of the object based on conservation choices rather than what the original object would have really looked like.
4/ Conservators rarely say they are “art” conservators
Ask any trained conservator what kind of conservator they are, and they will say things like:
books and paper, textile, objects, preventive, archaeological, architectural, stone, ceramics and glass, sculpture, wood, photograph, furniture, model ship, weapons, contemporary art, etc., etc. etc.
In truth, I have literally never met a conservator who describes themselves as an “art” conservator – so why do we call this diverse group of professionals “art” conservators? It would be highly inaccurate to call someone who cares for archaeological objects an “art” conservator. If you are unsure if someone actually focuses on art, you can refer to the field as heritage conservation!
5/ You can divide conservation into two main types
Not every conservator works directly on objects. These days, we talk about interventive and preventive conservation. Interventive conservation, as the name denotes, involves direct intervention and treatment of an object. This is required when an object is actively unstable and degrading or in danger of becoming so. Sometimes, this can also happen before an exhibition to make sure the object will be robust enough to be displayed safely.
Preventive conservation, on the other hand, focuses on the careful management of environmental factors around collections to reduce risk of damage and minimise deterioration rates. Preventive conservation can be considered preferable than interventive conservation because it addresses whole spaces that hold collections instead of individual objects. Over time, it is also cheaper to minimise rates of deterioration than to reactively treat objects that have aged poorly due to bad conditions.
Both interventive and preventive (sometimes called preventative) conservation are essential in caring for heritage.
6/ Conservators and conservationists are two different things
Pet peeve alert! These two words are not interchangeable. Conservationists are much more likely to throw the soup while conservators are most likely to be the ones to have to clean it up after. Although, of course, you could have a conservationist conservator and it would not be a redundancy to say it like that.
7/ Conservators don’t just work in museums
The typical image of a conservator that comes to mind tends to be that of a paintings conservator. Therefore, the typical imaginary setting for a conservator is some sort of museum.
However, you can find conservators working in libraries, archives, galleries, museums, private practice, private collections, archaeological digs, and even private companies that serve the heritage industry.
Join the conservation conversation!
I look forward to meeting you and having a deep dive into some of the concepts I have mentioned here and any other topics you would like to touch on. If you’d like to read a bit more about conservation topics, check out my personal blog. See you on December 1st for my debut salon, The Other Conservation: The Role Of Heritage In The 21st Century.
Let’s have some fun!