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Subject: Conservation principles

Conservation principles

From: Niccolo Caldararo <caldararo>
Date: Tuesday, August 22, 2006
This is in response to the discussion on "Conservation principles:
that has appeared over the past several months.  It has been a joy
to read these conversations and to see how candid and thoughtful our
profession has been able to remain.

At first Frank Hassard's question on June 15, 2006 referred to the
idea of "minimum intervention" as a ploy by institutions to save
money and "cover up a lack of skills", this question having been put
to him by an anonymous colleague.  I originally addressed the issue
of standards in an article on the use of ultrasonic devices in North
American Archaeologist, v. 14, n. 4, 1993. I revised it after Nathan
Stolow and I began working on a textbook on conversation practice
with the help of Robert Organ in the late 1990s. Somewhat later I
came across a fine book by Chris Caple, Conservation Skills,
Routledge, 2000.  This book is a detailed discussion of the nature
of interventions by conservators and how these have been defined and
limited by curators and collections.  In many ways this book is very
much like that written by Eric C. Hulmer in 1955, The Role of
Conservation in Connoisseurships.  Unfortunately, Hulmer's book was
written as a dissertation and never published.  The two book
complement each other as Caple's, though 45 years later, focuses on
objects and Hulmer's on paintings.

Another difference is that Hulmer's was more of a discussion of
personal treatments and those of close colleagues working with
collectors and curators, like Sheldon Keck and his discovery of a
Blakelock forgery.  In each case, like Hubert von Sonnenburg's "A
case of recurring deception," Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin,
1993/4, the view of many hands over time is pursued, defined,
assembled into a composite that makes sense in the present context.

In answer to the original question of whether working in a
reversible context requires as much skill as in the original, I
would refer the individual to Caple's book where a number of cases
are discussed that demonstrate, I think, this point.  But what is
certainly of greater value in Archaeology and Ethnographic
collections, is the information that can be destroyed or changed by
any intervention.

We have reached a point in conservation in these fields where we are
as much involved in identifying potential useful information, as in
conservation.  The development of techniques to preserve the history
of behavior written in the use of the object has required tremendous
effort, skill and a great deal of technology.  I revisited this
issue after 11 years in a talk at the AIC Portland Meeting, again
with a focus on ultrasound.  Things have only become more complex
and certainly objects can be restored to the satisfaction of any
collector or curator with considerable ease in many cases.

The real task, the effort for which the result seems impossible is
to preserve without destroying. This is not to say that the
questioner does not have a point. Certainly many museums regard
conservation as a luxury and have placed a great deal of emphasis on
preventive conservation.  This is reflected in what gets published
in AIC, we have seen fewer and fewer treatments written up.
Treatment design is costly, so is execution and pleasing curators is
often problematic.

I have often received work from museum referrals where the client
tells me the museum staff were unwilling to do a treatment and had
recommended preventive conservation instead.  Most often I think
this is because museum staff's are hard pressed to root out the more
profitable jobs, those less difficult that might not lead to
overruns.  In other cases, it seemed the museum lacked staff or
equipment to do analysis.  On the other hand, I have receive work
from curators hoping I would do more restoration and we have also
received work from private clients who had work done at major
museums off-hours where no report was produced.

I think the main problem lies in between all these examples.
Curators and museums have to allocate more resources to conservation
and to treatment. But to do so conservation science has to produce
more specific and directed results as guidelines for treatment.
Certainly research like that presented at AIC this year by Petria
Noble, Jaap Boon and Joyce Zucker on binding medium, oil soaps and
potential influences on treatments will lead to more discussion, but
it seems that we have gained significant confidence from the
scientific work and professional collaboration of the past 100

We know more about what we are doing, but we also know that much of
what has been done had unintended consequences.  As sobering as this
knowledge is, we must realize that while doing nothing is an option,
or doing the least intervention reserves the problem for a more
informed future, we have demonstrated the ability to learn from our
mistakes and we have a firm foundation, based on a tested bank of
methodologies to offer the world in preservation of its cultural

Niccolo Caldararo
Director and Chief Conservator
Conservation Art Service

                  Conservation DistList Instance 20:11
                  Distributed: Monday, August 28, 2006
                       Message Id: cdl-20-11-005
Received on Tuesday, 22 August, 2006

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