A big part of our heritage resides in the arts and artworks that have been passed on through generations and showcased to the public through various media. The elements of nature these are exposed to, the way they are displayed and their storage play an important role in the longevity and survival of the artworks.
Art conservation is a science aligned field of study that aims to preserve these little windows to our past, heritage and culture. Preservation of the artwork in its near original form and material is primary, the look and appeal of the artwork tends to take on a backseat. Art conservation frequently involves cleaning, repair of damage, re-shaping, reassembling and even toning to blend in with the original object.
As a precautionary measure to ensure that the objects are prevented from most damage conservators maintain the best physical environment for the art works to be displayed or stored in.
Though some believe that the culture of conservation began in Europe in 1565 with the restoration of the fabled and fabulous Sistine Chapel Frescoes, yet the presence of ancient examples like Cassiodorus denies this claim. The care or conservation of art and artworks has a vast history and was majorly aimed at repairing or fixing up things so that they could continue to be useful while maintaining their aesthetic value. Though the fields of science and art intertwined significantly during the 19th century, it was still the artists who were called for restoration and conservation as late as the beginning of 20th century. Michael Faraday discovered the damaging effects of natural elements on artworks even as Louis Pasteur did extensive scientific analysis of paints. However it was in the 1877, when Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was formed in United Kingdom that structured efforts were made to implement a theoretical outline to the care and conservation of artworks.
Conservation became a formalized field in education in Germany where Friedrich Rathgen, in addition to evolving a scientific approach to conservation, also took it upon himself to disseminate his approach through a published handbook in 1898. The initial development of care and conservation of artworks is closely associated with the hiring of chemists as conservators by the museums. With a strong awareness, sensitivity and an interest to conserve art, the United Kingdom took on the conservation of its heritage as a matter of great importance, giving birth to conservation profession in the country. The storage and upkeep of the artworks was severely affected by the First World War and a separate department was established to address the deteriorating condition of these paintings and the focus for development of care & conservation moved from Germany to Britain.
In the United States the development of conservation and care of the artworks can be traced to the Fogg Art Museum especially in the first half of the 20th century under the directorship of Edward Waldo Forbes. It was under his able leadership that technical investigation was encouraged and chemists were formally hired as staff. The focus of conservation development thus was born and then hastened in Britain and America. Gradually more technical advancements and laws supporting conservation came in to the picture only to strengthen and establish firmly the care and conservation of artworks.
Conservation of heritage objects including art has often been interpreted as ethical stewardship with some guidelines for the conservators to adhere to. The basic guidelines that the conservators stick to are minimal intervention, appropriate materials & reversible methods, and detailed documentation of the entire work that has been undertaken. There are often conflicts between preserving the appearance of the artwork, maintaining original design & material properties, and the reversibility of changes. It is now that reversibility is being focused on so as to avoid and problems in future regarding treatment, investigation and use of the artwork.
A conservation strategy and framework needs to be chalked out in conversation and agreement with the stakeholders, the worth and context of the work and the physical needs of the material. There, of course are more specific conservation ethic guidelines at national (country specific) and international level which need to be followed to the word for an ethical conservation work.
Traditionally the training for conservators followed the custom or ritual of apprenticeship, where an apprentice gradually learnt the skills of the trade. This practice still prevails in certain sub-fields of conservation. In the contemporary scenario, however, the training is more formalized and there is a requisition of attaining it from a recognized university course. These formalized training setups rarely provide the kind of experience apprenticeship extends, hence the system encourages the students to take up internships and practice their skills on the job.
Conservation of art as a subject is increasingly turning into a multi-disciplinary amalgamation as the students come from varied backgrounds including but not limited to the fine arts, sciences, art history, archaeology, studio art and anthropology, bringing with them unique skillsets that prove bankable in future.
The approaches and structures of these educational institutions, however differ greatly depending on the educational and vocational system in a particular country and the specific focus of the institution.
WHY CONSERVE ART?
Art is a significant part of our heritage as a global community. It is through art that cultural heritage has been passed on for centuries. However, when artworks are showcased, there are certain factors that may contribute to damage and deterioration of condition of these windows to our glorious heritage. It is important to conserve, protect, restore and renovate art through skilled methods and techniques, as it is our cultural responsibility to pass it all on to the future generations to enjoy and cherish.
The simplistic way to define or describe the process and intent of renovation would be to make an object look brand new again. The object or the artwork that needs to be renovated is simply the base or a starting point for the artist, designer, client, or craftsman who take up or commission the project. The object itself, the material of the object, the method of its construction, creation or fabrication, its historical significance or worth does not really hold much value. There is no restriction, guideline or parameters that are set forth by the object itself on the work that has to be done on it.
Restoration may be described as a process or a series of processes carried out with an intent to bring an object or artwork back to its former position or state. Restoration of an artwork, artefact, furniture or building, the prime intent and concern is the final visual appearance. The client and the hired restorer or any other stakeholders assess and reach an agreement regarding the most important period in the life of the object. Following this, the restorer plans a series of appropriate techniques and methods to return the object to the appearance associated with the said period.
Preservation is a term most commonly associated with architecture and built environments involving keeping them from any potential damage and keeping them under scrutiny to ensure that no unalterable or irredeemable changes are made to it. The prime motive or intent of preservation is retaining the maximum amount of the original structure and essence; the final appearance is no longer a prime concern. The decisions regarding the materials and methodology are further thickened with additional requirements and concerns.
The essence of preservation is that to retain the maximum of the original structure, any repair must be done with nominal or no alteration to the original structure and in similar materials, preferably using methods same or as close to the original.
As a practice conservation ensures or intends to preserve the absolute maximum amount of the original material with as little change or alteration as possible. Any efforts to repair or conserve should not eliminate, change or permanently be bonded to any of the original materials. It is supreme that any repair, elimination, addition or alteration be reversible without casting any effect on the original artwork as it stands today or anytime in the future.
In conservation it is the object that is supreme, hence dictating every choice on how the process should commence and continue. There is absolutely no scope for any artistic choice or material experimentation or exploration on the object being conserved.
CARING FOR THE HERITAGE
Works of art are a part of the very relevant and important culture work and their sensitivity to elements both natural and human vary. Some of these pieces have high sensitivity to conditions like humidity, temperature and exposure to light or UV light. When in a museum or in an otherwise controlled environment, these factors need to be maintained at the best suited levels to limit the damage caused to these works of art. Some artworks like watercolours need to be shielded from sunlight to prevent fading of pigments, while others are sensitive to humidity or temperature or the way they are displayed.
It is the collective responsibility of museum staff and owners or the collector to create and maintain a conducive and protective environment for the collections under their care or ownership, whether they are displayed, stored or in transit. A constant eye needs to be kept on the need for any conservation, restoration or preservation work that needs to be done to limit further change or damage.
To put it simply interventive conservation refers to any action taken by the conservator where he directly interacts with the artwork. It may be cleaning, stabilizing, repair or even replacement of parts of the original artwork. The conservator should not only justify every act, but also document it in detail and entirety at each stage of the project not just for future consultations, but also to avoid any doubts later.
The primary intent of any conservator is to arrest the deterioration of the artwork, maybe interventive or non-interventive. Any act or action by the conservator that includes a direct interaction such as surface cleaning by varnish removal, or consolidation like securing paint flakes falls under interventive methodologies of conservation. The intent to carry such processes out maybe for a variety of reasons like aesthetic choices through cleaning, stabilization needs for structural integrity, or in the cultural context for intangible continuity.
Traditionally reversibility is one of the prime guiding principle of conservation of an artwork and all conservational interventions must be entirely reversible so that the artwork may be returned to its prior state without any lasting impact on its original state. In spite of facing much controversy and conflict, reversibility remains a major guiding principle in the contemporary scenario.
THE CONSERVATION LABORATORY
The conservation laboratories are entrusted with the task to preserve artworks or other artefacts with a cultural significance. It is in the gamut of the laboratory to prevent any kind of damage to the works of art in the collection by overseeing the storage and display conditions, to conserve and restore artworks and to generate awareness by disseminating information about suitable handling of the artworks. It is with the prime intent to ensure the safety of the exhibits by participating the assembly and disassembly of exhibitions and the transport of artworks.
It is the responsibility of the laboratory to analyze the artwork to gain information about the material and to scrutinize any damage to the artwork. The condition and the actions taken on the artwork are duly documented in appropriate details.
ASSOCIATIONS & ORGANIZATIONS
CRITICAL ISSUES IN ART CONSERVATION
Some basic issues concerning conservation of art in the modern times that are of critical importance and relevance maybe listed as under.
Research in Modern Materials – there is an ever evolving list of the materials and media that the contemporary and new age artists tend to employ. This kind of a progression in the evolution of media use and materials calls for continuously updating the conservator’s knowledge base.
Research in Conservation Treatments – confronted with a supremely dynamic art world, a conservator needs to be on top of awareness of various conservation treatments, both new and old. It is therefore a big challenge and critical that there is exhaustive research and study in this field.
Ethical Issues – in the process of conservation, there are a number of decisions that invite a lot of ethical and theoretical controversies. The conservation community and the art world with all its stakeholders tend to be divided on many of these. There is a certain need for a more detailed and open dialogue between all the arts related fields like conservators, art historians and curators in particular.
Documentation – there is a common guideline for all conservators to record or document each action taken on the artwork in detail. However, the details that do need to be recorded are not standardized and lacking in information like significance, value, and context of the material, sound, motion, even smell. There is a definite need for a strategy to be put in place that would ensure such inclusive documentation.
Dissemination & Information Sharing – one of the most important aspects in the art world is definitely dissemination and sharing of information. There is a definite need of a common network or groups for a smooth flow of information.
Education & Training – with continuous evolution and development in the field of conservation there is a need for continuous upgradation of knowledge and skills. There is also a need for timely training and value addition to keep the conservators abreast with latest developments.
CLASSIFICATION PER OBJECT
Paintings – conservation of paintings is a detailed and intricate process which includes a series of sub-processes starting from a technical examination and analysis, then cleaning and structural work. There, of course are certain paintings that cannot be worked on but only be prevented in ways that would minimize further damage.
Textiles – combining and amalgamating information and knowledge from different fields textile conservation combines academic knowledge with cultural sensitivity, aesthetic sensibility and technical skills. It is through conservation that textiles are prevented from the potential damage posed by unfavorable environmental conditions, instability of the textile itself and its handling. The conservators take apt measures to ensure a conducive and protective physical environment and proper handling by studying the material and devise required guidelines for cleaning, storage and display of the same.
Objects – three dimensional objects of any kind and category from something as small as jewelry to pottery, furniture, glassware or sculptures would fall in this classification. The range of materials for this category is massive as the number of materials known to and exploited by the mankind goes in multiples of thousands. There is a need and responsibility for the conservator to study and to analyze these materials for a better knowledge base and evolved understanding of the conserved object and the steps required for their care and conservation. Conservation of objects is done through cleaning, fumigation, controlled physical environment, proper display measures, preservation, and repair & restoration.
Musical Instruments – conservation of musical instruments is done by conservator-restorers to preserve and protect ancient or modern musical instruments. Musical instruments were played to entertain people across classes. The aspects that need looking into include environmental considerations, climate control, light limitation, storage, air quality and pest control. The nature of conservation practices for musical instruments does not vary greatly from the other objects of historical or artistic importance, but the nature of the object itself is different as there is a function attached to it – playing music.
Wooden Furniture – another interesting activity taken up by conservator-restorers is conservation and restoration of wooden furniture which maybe of cultural or personal value. There are three major endeavors that are a part of conservation of wooden furniture viz. minimization of deterioration, consolidation of the furniture as it currently exists and repair or replacement of existing damage. The conservation form applied here is preventive conservation as an effort to retain the early finish along with the original material so that the information in the final finish is also conserved to be appreciated in future.
Frames – the picture frames are almost as important source of cultural pride and heritage as the framed artwork or photograph. The process or a set of steps through which picture frames or any other kind of tangible framework is preserved is called Frame conservation. The basic aspects of frame conservation include replicating missing decorative elements, cleaning, gilding, and toning frame surfaces.
Documents & Maps – conservation of culturally and historically significant documents & maps primarily made of paper, parchment or leather is done through specialized analysis and techniques. The common agents of their deterioration include but are not limited to inherent vice, pests, environmental conditions and handling. Proper care and conservation of these would include surface cleaning, mold & insect removal, adhesive removal, washing & alkalization, mending & filling, sewing & rebinding, backing, flattening and emergency or disaster plans.
ANALYSIS & DIAGNOSTICS
Scientific Analysis – Scientific analysis is imperative to help curators, collectors and art historians as it helps in authenticating and dating an artwork. Through specialized scientific analysis the artist’s unique techniques come to light, also hidden alterations or repairs can also be seen which are invisible to the naked eye. It is actually the first step that an artwork goes through to determine the true condition of the piece and to help figure out and plan the best path for its art conservation treatment.
Condition Reports – after the completion of the first step that is the scientific analysis, a complete and detailed condition report is prepared. It is through this condition report that the information is derived to help estimate and determine the true age of the artwork, its general condition and authentication is facilitated. This entire report can be treated as an information kit for collectors and buyers to help them put a true value to the piece.
Collection Surveys – a collections survey gives the overall condition of a particular piece of art and an overview of the associated problems found. It also suggests the tentative treatment plans to be used. It is only after the collection survey is conducted and completed that the actual work of restoration can begin.
On site evaluation, damage and loss surveys – as a part of on site evaluation a particular artwork or an entire collection is evaluated for damage and loss. In case of an existing damage, transit can add to it especially when the artwork is delicate in nature. This process entails the experts to make an official visit to the site and evaluate, examine and devise a conservation plan.