The future of museum Conservation

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  • THE F U T U R E OF M U S E U M CONSERVATION

    HE problems that today face museum officials are complex and fairly funda- T mental. A flourishing public interest in museums and museum policies has emphasized the desirability of broader scope and enlarged public services. At the same time current economic trends have conspired to enlarge public collections and to reduce available operating budgets. Although perhaps most acute in American museums, the situation is common to all in some degree. One of its results has been a healthy tendency toward mutual co-operation on an international scale. There is a general trend toward the pooling of ideas and resources for the good of museums as a whole, and there has been a considerable increase in exchange of museum per- sonnel and of loan exhibition material.

    A natural secondary development has been a growing awareness of the museums obligation to maintain its holdings in sound physical condition. Technical details are more frequently included in the publications of art scholarship. Public interest in the problems of conservation* has been stimulated by such exhibitions as the cleaned paintings at the London National Gallery, and questions of museum policy in this field have become subjects of popular debate.

    There can be no doubt that the air needs clearing over the field of art conser- vation, and the free expression of divergent opinions may help to clarify funda-. mentals, and to indicate common grounds for agreement on further progress. But there is always some risk in public debate that a natural momentum may carry it into the region of all-out controversy. In such an atmosphere a spirit of partisanship can easily develop, and endanger the hoped-for benefits of open discussion.

    It seems unhappily evident that a mild situation of this nature has developed with respect to so-called policies in the cleaning of paintings. To whatever extent it map be true, this is both unnecessary and unfortunatc. These comments are prompted by the feeling that the schism exists chiefly in the context of the contro- versy, rather than in the realities of actual practice, and that the time is ripe for a re-direction of effort toward friendly and constructive co-operation. The problems of conservation are dictated primarily by the fundamental nature of the objects to be cared for, and these differ in but minor degree from one museum to another. The broad principles of examination and treatment are generally established on an increasingly sound footing, with the employment of modern technical means for determining materials, for defining their relationship, and for establishing their condition. These problems have never been properly solved by empiricism or by theoretical debate. There would seem to be scant excuse for falling back upon such methods now.

    hhseum conservators are all dedicated to the sound preservation of museum objects. None of them would knowingly injure a work of art. They can be expected to use the considerable means now available for avoiding error, and, most important of all, to govern their operations according to the conditions and requirements of individual cases. The descriptions of technical operations that have been published from time to time strongly suggest that the great majority would follow very similar courses in the treatment of any specific object. Above all, they know very well the fLitility of dependence on dogma in the laboratory. But dogma seems to be a common commodity of the present controversy. It is apparent in a tendency to classify various institutions according to extremes of policy, none of which is, or could be, followed consistently in actual practice. It is reflected in published articles which cite single cases, isolated quotations, and personal aesthetic theories to support very broad generalizations. It is most evident in the inherent implication that technic- al operations can be conducted successfully according to arbitrary doctrines. Such forensic exercices may do little immediate harm in themselves. But this situation cannot continue very long without unfortunate consequences.

    Over-emphasis on policies of cleaning may tend to draw attention away from the more complex and exigent problems of fundamental conservation. It will.

    by MURRAY PEASE

    Y: Conservation, as used in this article, refers to the preservation, restoration and repair of museum objects, by scientific and technical knowledge and skills, as practised by specially trained experts mho act as scientific advisors to curators.

    It is necessary to note this technicd definition of conservation, especially in the French text, because of the confusion arising from the diifering French and English connotations of the word. The French word conservation as applied to niuseums has a broader sense than in English: Conser- Tatcur is esactly equivalent to Curator in English, it implies primarily custodial respon- sibility. Ed.

    2 3 3

  • certainly foster an already common and misleading impression that the soundness of a conservators practices can be judged by personal reaction to the visual results. It has already resurrected a notion that has been responsible for unchecked deteri- oration of countless works of art-that it is safer to leave them untouched than to rislx injury by treatment. In fact the general tenor of the controversy harks back to the days when restoration was obscured behind the myths of secret formulas and personal virtuosity, and custodians had some consequent justification for nervous uncertainty about the results. But there is an even more serious and fundamental danger. We cannot escape the logic that attack on the condition of objects in a museum is in fact an attack on the judgment and professional competence of its entire administration, including the trustees. Conceivably the theories of non-tech- nical doctrinaires might gather enough popular support to persuade trustees that they ought to impose categorical restrictive policies upon those responsible for the welfare of their collections. The further dangers in such a situation are fairly ap- parent. Few critics with the future of museums at heart would wish to see any such precedent established.

    It should be evident that the only real safeguard of a painting under treatment is the integrity of competent operators. It follows logically that museum officials, having secured the services of such persons, should do all in their power to foster and protect that integrity. There is much at stake in this matter. The recent consid- erable advances in museum conservation, and the present high standards of accom- plishment have grown out of a large amount of systematic research and study of methods by conservators ana their associates. A strong sense of professional re- sponsibility has motivated this efiort. Although largely self-generated, it has flour- ished under the enlightened support and co-operation of various institutions. The imposition of blanket restrictions on details of practice would deny the validity of that approach and would imply lack of appreciation of present standards. Moreover such restrictions would create precedent for an administrative regimentation that would be potentially responsive to uninformed popular pressure. In such an atmos- phere there would be little incentive for further independent efforts toward progress, or even toward maintenance of individual standards upon which, nevertheless, museums must ultimately depend.

    This is not to suggest that conservators be left wholly to their own devices. Obviously every institution has need for a clear pattern of administrative and depart- mental procedure, with responsibilities sharply defined and fields of authority logic- ally delimited. But such a pattern must be founded on the axiom that each work of art is a case by itself, to be treated individually according to its unique requirements. Formal regulations must be designed to protect the processes of conservation from doctrinaire regimentation. At the same time they can, and should, provide the museum with adequate records and other systematic means for demonstrating that these processes are carried out in accordance with sound technical practice. There is nothing particularly di%cult or novel about such a programme. In many fields involving institutions and professional employees its general principles have proved both necessary and successful. They are, in theory at least, illustrated in the conserv- ation programmes of most of the museums associated with this controversy. It is to be hoped that in them can be found a common basis for renewed agreement on primary aims, and promise of a return to a co-operative approach to the broad problems of conservation.

    As a sort of appendix to these generalities, it may do no harm to describe briefly a pattern of administration which has operated effectively at a large American museum. This is done hesitantly, and without any intent to imply perfection. It is put forward simply in the belief that within its structure can be found the outlines of a sound philosophy.

    The work of conservation at this museum is conducted by trained persons, who are regular members of the staff. The department has full curatorial rank by authority of the trustees, and operates independently under the Director of the museum. In matters specifically related to the physical condition and welfare of works of art the final decision rests with the head of the conservation department. In matters aflcting primarily the aesthetic entity and appearance of objects, decisions

    1 are made in consultation with the curator involved, whose authority is final in that 234

  • category. All decisions are of course subject to review and approval by the Director. The operating routine includes written reports of laboratory examination with recommended treatment, formal approval by a staff executive committee before treatment, and full photographic and written records before, during, and after treatment. All operations are open to continuous observation by the curator, whose presence in the laboratory is always welcomed. The principle of joint responsibility is reflected in the entire pattern of procedure, and that responsibility is permanently established in the records.

    It would seem that these policies carry with them inherent safeguards against errors of judgment or of inadvertence. There is some reason to believe that they are the only dependable variety of safeguard. With the assurance of mature professional responsibility, codes and doctrines become superficial and unnecessary. Without such assurance they are but feeble protection.

    The thesis of these remarks can easily be summarized. All museums share the obligation to preserve their collections. The task is ever increasing. None can hope to keep up with it in solitary independence. The problem can be met only by the utmost in co-operative effort, by pooling resources, sharing technical data, and by resolute concentration on common fundamentals. Museums simply cannot afford to waste time and effort bickering over doctrines, or to undermine the stature of conservators by imposing dogmatic regulations on technical practice.

    In the foregoing, emphasis has been laid upon the need for institutional action to foster sound conservation. The burden must obviously be shared by the conservators

    23 S

    * Photographs nos. 3 0 i 33: Modern niuseuni laboratories are prepared to solve must problems in the surface treatnient of paintings. For esample, on the IvIetropolitan Museum's L&?futio/r oil the PafJ'iO/l by Vittore Carpaccio, an ancient varnish as found to lie over il Mantegna signature. Infra- red photography showed a Carpaccio signature under the other. According to its physical character- istics the varnish night have been an original coating, hut laboratory investigation demonstrated that it was later than the false hfantegna signature. * Photographies nos 30 i 33: Des laboratoires modernes sont equipts dans les musees pour r& soudre la plupart des problkmes que pqse la manikre de traiter la surface des tableaus. Par exemple, sur la peinture de Vittore Carpaccio qui se trouve au Metropolitan hluseum, LWdiufiotg sur La PaJ.JiOtJ, on a dlcouvert qu'un ancien vernis recouvrait une signature de Mantegna. Des photographies prises aux rayons infra-rouges ont rvll la presence de la signature de Carpaccio sous la precedente. D'aprks les caracttristiques de sa composition, le vernis aurait pu etre un revstement original, mais l'examen au laboratoire a montrt qu'il Ctait posterieur i la fausse signature de Mantegna.

  • 3 1 . The false Mantegna signature, under old var- nish*. 3 I. Fausse signature de Mantegna, sous un ancien vernis. i:

    32. 'The signature photographed by infra-red.*

    p. Signature photographibe aux rayons infra- rouges*.

    * See footnote p. 235. * Voir note p. 235.

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    themselves, and it is pertinent to ask how they are prepared to meet this re- sponsibility. A partial answer to that question may be fodnd in the International Institute for the Conservation of Museum Objects. This organization, now estab- lished under British law as an international non-profit corporation, is composed of museum conservators and other professional museum persons who are by ex- perience and occupation able to further the progress of conservation. The founding membership represents many museums in Europe and America. Its basic objectives are (a) to develop programmes for the exchange and dissemination of technical information; (b) to further specific projects of investigation; (c) to encourage and co-ordinate programmes for technical training; (d) to define and maintain standards in the practice of conservation; (e) to provide services of consultation for subscribing institutions.

    More than one effort has been made in the past to provide means for dealing with these problems. In 1934 a committee was appointed by the Association of American Museums to report on methods for examining paintings.The International Office of Museums of the League of Nations held conferences on the subject, and much of the findings have been published in &iot~seion and elsewhere. Papers dealing with art conservation are regularly presented at meetings of the Association of American Museums and are subsequently published in the &Ixrezim News. For a period of ten years a quarterly journal, Techt&l Studies in fhe Field (zf the Fiize Ar ts , was published by the Department of Conservation at the Fogg Museum of Art. At present the International Council of Museums is conducting a survey of museum practices in conservation, The intent of all these undertakings has been admirable. Some progress has undoubtedly resulted, and more can be anticipated. On the other

  • 3 3 . The signature area after cleaning.*

    33 . Zone de la signature aprks le d&vernissage*.

    . . _- . 3 +. The signature area by infra-red photographs.*. 34. Zone de la signature photographike aux rayons infra-rouges.

    hand much valuable work has been wasted in the past for lack of a permanent organization devoted to the practical application and systematic continuance of advances already made. The Icohi Commission on: the Care of Paintings can aid progress very greatly on the curatorial and administrative level, but its present field of concern is limited to paintings, and its organization is not designed to carry out many of the technical programmes of the International Institute for Conservation. This work is primarily professional, and it seems certain that an organization for its promotion must be professional in character. In order to continue as an active agency, it must derive permanent impetus from the experience, knowledge, and mutual devotion to principle of those actively engaged in the practice of museum conservation. The problems in this field, whether technical or theoretical, cannot be solved by external ratiocination, or by isolated non-technical investigations and reports. Museums should depend upon and encourage the conservators themselves to meet this need. The International Institute for the Conservation of Museum Objects presents itself as a means to that end. As a continuing professional organization it will be in a position to give regular advice and information on matters of conservation to individual institutions, and at the same time to co-operate with larger bodies such as museums associations, Unesco, and ICOAI. Under these circumstances there is good hope for outstanding progress in the field of museum conservation.

    * See footnote p. 235. a Voir note p. 2 3 5 .

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  • L A CONSERVATION DES OBJETS DE MUSES ET SON AVENIR

    par MURRtlY PEASE

    35. The cradle, applied twenty years ago.*

    35. Le parquetage applique il y a vingt ans*.

    * Photographs nos. 35 to 38 : The pi-oblems of treating painting supports often receive less atten- tion than those of surface care. * Photographies no* 35 38 : Les problkmes que pose Ia manire de traiter les supports de Ia peinture sont souvent tudits avec moins de soin que ceux qui ont trait la conservation de la surface.

    ** Le mot (r conservation II tel qu'il est employ dans le prCsent article s'applique uniquement la prtservation, la restauration et la rparation des objets de musks effectute par des experts, sptcia- listes de laboratoire, faisant fonction de conseiIlers techniques auprs des consewateurs.

    I1 ttait ncessaire

  • exercices oratoires de ce genre ne constituent peut-tre pas un danger immdiat en eux-mmes. Mais cette situation ne saurait durer trs longtemps sans entraner de fcheuses consquences.

    En donnant une importance trop grande aux programmes de nettoyage, on risque de dtourner lattention du public des problmes plus complexes et plus ardus de la conservation proprement dite. Cela entretient certainement lide fausse et trop rpandue que, pour apprcier les procds appliqus par un conservateur, on peut se contenter den observer personnellement les rsultats visibles. Cette ide a dj fait renatre une notion laquelle on doit la dtrioration sans contrle dinnom- brables ceuvres dart, savoir quil vaut mieux ne pas toucher ces dernires que de (( risquer 1) de les endommager par un traitement quelconque. En fait, la controverse actuelle semble nous ramener lpoque o la restauration tait lie des formules secrtes et dtpendait de la virtuosit personnelle de lexcutant, et o les conserva- teurs taient quelque peu fonds sinquiter de rsultats incertains. Mais il existe un danger encore plus grave et plus profond. En bonne logique il faut reconnatre quen critiquant ltat des pices dun muse on critique par l mme le discernement et la comptence professionnelle du personnel tout entier du muse, y compris les administrateurs. Or les thories de doctrinaires techniquement incomptents peuvent fort bien trouver auprs du public un appui assez fort pour que les administrateurs se croient obligks dimposer de svtres restrictions ceux qui sont chargs de main- tenir leurs collections en bon tat. Le danger dune telle situation pour lavenir nest que trop vident. I1 est peu de critiques, sincrement soucieux de lavenir des muses, qui dsireraient voir stablir un tel prcdent.

    I1 est hien vident que pour le traitement dun tableau la seule garantie relle quon possde est lintgrit de restaurateurs comptents. I1 sensuit que les dirigeants des muses, une fois quils se sont assur les services de spcialistes de ce genre, doivent faire tout ce qui est en leur pouvoir pour encourager et protger leur intgrit. En effet lenjeu est dimportance. Les progrs considrables qui ont t rcemment raliss dans le domaine de la conservation des muses et la haute qualit des rsultats obtenus sont dus au grand nombre de recherches et dtudes poursuivies mthodj- quement par les conservateurs et leurs collaborateurs quun sciis aigu de leur respon- sabilit professionnelle stimulait dans leur entreprise. Bien quen grande partie spontane, celle-ci sest dveloppe avec lappui et la coopration claire de diverses institutions. Imposer des restrictions gnrales portant sur des dtails ayant trait la mthode employe reviendrait nier la valeur de cette entreprise; ce serait aussi montrer quon apprcie peu les rsultats actuellement acquis. Au surplus, de telles

    36. Vittore Carpaccio. The i21enitahion on the Passim, photographed by reflected light, shows characteristic corrugations produced by cradling.* 36. Vittore Carpaccio, la AltVitafioti .JIN /a Passion, photographile A la lumitrc rlflkhie, montre des stries caractkristiques, produites par le parquetage i.

    * See footnote p. 238. * Voir note p. 238.

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  • restrictions creraient un prcdent favorable l'instauration d'un rgime adminis- tratif qui pourrait tre trop sensible la pression d'un public mal inform. Une telle atmosphre n'encouragerait gure de nouveaux efforts indpendants vers le progrs ou mme vers le maintien des valeurs individuelles sur lesquelles, en fin de compte, les muses sont bien obligs de compter.

    Nous ne prtendons pas que les conservateurs de muse doivent tre laisss entirement libres d'employer leurs propres mthodes. I1 est vident que dans chaque institution les rgles relatives l'administration et aux diffrents services doivent tre bien dfinies, les attributions nettement dtermines et les comptences respectives logiquement circonscrites. Mais ces rgles doivent s'inspirer de l'axiome suivant lequel chaque ceuvre d'art reprsente un cas d'espce qui doit tre trait individuellement, selon ses exigences particulires. I1 faut tablir des rgles formelles pour protger les mthodes de conservation contre un enrgimentement doctrinal. En mme temps ces rglements peuvent et doivent prvoir que les muses dispo- seront d'archives appropries et d'autres moyens de montrer que ces procds de restauration sont appliqus dans de bonnes conditions techniques. I1 n'y a rien de particulirement difficile ou nouveau dans un tel programme. Dans beaucoup de domaines les principes dont il s'inspire, appliqus des institutions ou un personnel technique, se sont rvls la fois ncessaires et efficaces. On les retrouve, au moins thoriquement, dans les programmes de conservation de la plupart des muses qui ont t associs cette controverse. I1 faut esprer qu'ils pourront fournir la base commune d'un accord renouvel sur les buts essentiels et qu'ils permettront d'aborder dans un esprit de coopration les vastes problmes que pose la conservation.&

    Nous croyons bon de prsenter brivement, la suite de ces considrations gnrales, le plan d'organisation qui a t appliqu avec succs dans un grand muse amricain. Nous ne le faisons pas sans quelque hsitation, car nous n'entendons pas affirmer qu'il est parfait. Nous croyons simplement que l'on peut en dgager les principes d'une saine philosophie.

    Les travaux de conservation dans ce muse sont dirigs par des personnes comptentes, membres du personnel permanent. Les administrateurs ont donn tous pouvoirs ce service en matire de conservation et il fonctionne d'une manire autonome, sous l'autorit du directeur du muse. Pour tout ce qui concerne expres- sment l'tat matriel et la protection des Oeuvres d'art, c'est le chef du dpartement de la conservation* qui dcide en dernier ressort. Pour ce qui a trait en principe la valeur esthtique et l'aspect des tableaux, les dcisions sont prises en consultation avec le conservateur intress, dont l'autorit est souveraine en la matire. Toutes les dcisions sont naturellement soumises l'examen et l'approbation du directeur. La pratique habituelle comprend les phases suivantes : rapports sur l'examen au laboratoire suivis de recommandations pour le traitement, approbation formelle par un comit excutif de l'administration avant le traitement, tablissement d'un dossier complet de fiches et d'une documentation photographique avant, pendant et aprs le traitement. Le consertateur, dont la prsence au laboratoire est toujours souhaite, peut surveiller d'une fason continue l'ensemble de ces oprations. Toute !a procdure prvue repose sur le principe de la responsabilit commune, et cette responsabilit est fixe d'une manire permanente par les dossiers tablis.

    I1 semble bien que de telles rgles de conduite soient en elles-mmes une garantie contre les erreurs de jugement ou d'attention. On peut bon droit les considrer comme la seule protection qui soit sre. Avec un personnel expriment, rglements et doctrines sont superflus et sans porte relle. A dfaut d'un tel personnel ils n'offrent qu'une bien faible garantie.

    I1 est facile de rsumer l'essentiel des observations ci-dessus. Tous les muses ont le devoir de prserver leurs collections. C'est l une tche qui prend de plus en plus d'importance. Aucun muse ne peut esprer y faire face uniquement par ses propres moyens. Le problme ne pourra tre rsolu que si tous les intresss font le plus grand effort possible de coopration, mettent en commun leurs ressources, se communiquent les renseignements techniques et concentrent rsolument leur attention sur les points essentiels qu'ils ont rsoudre. Les muses doivent absolu- ment viter de perdre leur temps et leurs efforts se quereller sur des questions de doctrines; il ne doivent pas non plus diminuer le rle des conservateurs en sou- mettant leurs procds techniques des rgles troites.

    *. C'est-i-dire le chef du laboratoire scientifique.

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  • 37. On another painting, The Rope Damrs by Defiance, the cradle has iniposed a double warp.*

    37. Sur une autre peinture, les DU"%. de cot&, de Defiance, le parquetage a produit un double gauchissement b .

    Dans ce qui prckde, nous avons surtout insist sur la nkcessit pour les insti- tutions d'encourager une conservation rationnelle. C'est videmment aux conserva- teurs eux-mmes qu'incombe cette tche; il convient donc de se demander comment on les y prpare. L'Institut international pour la conservation des objets de muse fournit en partie une rponse cette question. Cette organisation, reconnue main- tenant par la lgislation britannique comme une socit internationale sans but lucratif, est compose de conservateurs et d'autres spcialistes des muses que leur exprience et leur profession mettent en mesure de perfectionner la science de la conservation. Parmi les membres fondateurs se trouvent de nombreux muses d'Europe et d'Amrique. Les buts essentiels de l'institut sont les suivants: a) Ia- borer des programmes d'change et de diffusion de renseignements techniques; 6 ) encourager des projets d'enqute dtermins; c) favoriser et coordonner des programmes de formation technique; d ) dfinir et faire respecter certaines normes dans la pratique de la conservation; e) fournir des avis consultatifs aux institutions membres.

    Dans le pass on s'est plus d'une fois dj efforc de rsoudre ces problmes. E n 1934 l'Association des muses amricains a constitu un comit charg de faire rapport sur les mthodes suivies pour l'examen des tableaux. L'Office international des muses de la Socit des Nations avait organis des confrences ce sujet, dont les conclusions ont t en grande partie publies dans .&loirseion et ailleurs. Des documents traitant de la conservation des uvres d'art sont priodiquement prsents chacune des sessions de l'Association des muses amricains et sont ensuite publis dans Mnsezmi lVews. Le dpartement de la conservation du Fogg Museum of Art (Universit Harvard) a publi pendant dix ans une revue trimestrielle, TechicalStmies in the Fiejdcf the Filie Arts . A l'heure actuelle le Conseil international

    ' See footnote P. 238 * Voir note P. 238.

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  • 18. Detail showing condition of an early American painting produced by improper use of glue and canvas in a transfer operation."

    38. Dtail montrant l'tat d'une ancienne peinture amricaine en raison de l'emploi abusif de colle et de toile au cours d'un rentoilage*.

    des muses procde une enqute sur les mthodes de Conservation appliques dans les muses. Toutes ces initiatives ont t prises dans d'excellentes intentions. Quelques progrs ont sans aucun doute t raliss; on peut en esprer d'autres. En outre bien des efforts prcieux ont t accomplis en pure perte dans le pass&, faute d'une orga- nisation permanente qui pt veiller l'application pratique et au perfectionnement mthodique des rsultats acquis. La commission de ~ ' ICOM chargke d'ktudier la protection des tableaux pourrait puissamment aider au progrs aussi bien dans le domaine de la conservation que dans celui de l'administration, mais son champ d'activit est limit aux peintures et elle n'est pas organise pour excuter les nom- breux programmes techniques de l'Institut international pour la conservation des objets de muses. Cette tche est avant tout d'ordre professionnel, et il semble certain que l'organisation charge de l'accomplir doit avoir un caractre professionnel. Pour exercer un rle actif elle doit constamment puiser de nouvelles forces dans l'exprience, l'attachement au devoir et le savoir professionnel de ceux qui ont pour fonction d'assurer la conservation des cuvres des muses. Dans ce domaine les problmes techniques ou thoriques ne peuvent tre rsolus par des raisonnements superficiels ou par des enqutes et des rapports isoles d'un caractre non scientifique. Les muses doivent compter sur les conservateurs eux-mmes pour faire face cette ncessit, et ils doivent les encourager. L'Institut international pour la conservation des objets de muses se prsente comme un moyen d'atteindre ce but. En tant qu'orga- nisation professionnelle permanente, il est en mesure de donner rgulirement aux diverses institutions des avis et des renseignements sur les questions de conservation et, en mme temps, de cooprer avec de plus vastes organisations, telles que les associations de muses, l'Unesco et ~ ' I C O R I . Dans ces conditions on peut avoir le ferme espoir que de remarquables progrs pourront tre raliss dans le domaine de la conservation des objets de muse. (Trdtcit de I'atzgZas.)

    * See footnote p. 238. * Voir note p. 238,