The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 18, Number 8
Dec 1994


Cathy Baker has been working part time for three years on a biography of Dard Hunter, but has now decided to go full time and has agreed to a press deadline only a year away. Since she expects to use up the last of her savings this year, partly on research-related travel, and since she has not succeeded in getting more than a token amount from the major granting agencies, she is asking her family and friends to help. She said, in a personal letter written before Christmas,

"Although the financial side of things is a bit iffy, I haven't been happier. I love the research involved with this biography. Hunter really was an extraordinary man and I can't wait for everyone to be able to know him better through my book."

Her address is: Cathleen A. Baker, P.O. Box 717, Chillicothe, OH 45601-0717 (tel. & fax: 614/774-1236). She gives more details about her work in the latest Bull & Branch, p. 18.

To the Editor:

The death of George M. Cunha prompts me to give voice to some thoughts which have been mentioned to some colleagues and friends, but never voiced to the profession in general. Those who know me fairly well are aware that I began my career in 1975 at what was then the New England Document Conservation Center, under the tutelage of George, Allan Thenen, and Tom Duncan. Most are also aware that things did not end well between George and me, and although we did reach a point where we could speak with some degree of ease at professional gatherings, there was never a complete mending of the breach. These few comments do not concern that past relationship, but other impacts which George has had on the conservation profession. I have no intention to defend or in any other way argue the merits of every act in his professional life. To do so would most likely encourage his immediate and wrathful return, as he never thought for a moment that he needed to defend (or be defended), or apologize for his actions.

Regardless of one's individual feelings about George, you cannot help admiring such unrelenting self-confidence. But, what is far more important is to recognize that that self-confidence was actually representing one of the deepest personal and intellectual commitments to the conservation profession I recall witnessing. This was a commitment of the old school, from a time when passionate belief was admired, not considered as cause to disregard information presented at conferences or lectures and essays. This was a commitment to raising the general public's awareness of conservation as a profession; to making the information available; to making the services available to individuals and institutions at all levels, not just to those with large bank accounts, or huge grants, and to hell with everyone else.

Can some question be raised regarding his methodology? Undoubtedly, but let us all take an honest look at ourselves and each other. Who doesn't have at least one moment in our professional career that can be questioned? What must be viewed is the entire contribution to the field, and the driving force behind that contribution--was it self-aggrandizement, or the furthering of a profession in general?

In these days of listening to institutional conservators complaining about not getting paid enough; of hearing of conservators refusing to provide institutions with their services because the institutions cannot pay $700 a day in consultation fees, which for many small museums is far more than the director may make in a week; of hearing conservators brag that they bill for everything they can, never mentioning whether or not it is all worth the billing, I no longer hear conservators talking of taking a project because it needed to be done. We all want to be well paid for our skills and knowledge, but there are limits to the funds available in our chosen field, and I do not hear conservators voicing concerns of making those funds stretch to insure the treatment and care of as many objects as possible, but rather whether they can get as much money as possible, regardless of what was accomplished.

Like him or not, George M. Cunha was one of the last representatives of an altruistic approach to this field that we had, and his passing signals the end of an era, as well as the diminishing ranks of an entire generation of conservators. It is so silly that nearly all of us will not last as long as the least significant piece we will treat, and yet all too many consider their fee as being more important than what is done to earn that fee. One can only hope that some of the passion, the soul, of what we do will return to the profession as new conservators complete their training and enter the field. But where will they find this soul? After all, there is an even greater emphasis on academic training, which detracts from the time available for training in the practical application of the information, and results in a de facto kind of subliminal training in the suspicion of treatment. And it is the intensity of the applied treatment, and the resulting intimacy with the piece receiving treatment (and with the owner/custodian), which will require some soul.

So, thanks, George, for your commitment, your intense belief in the concept of Conservation, and for all the good work you accomplished in your career. May you find peace.

Thomas M. Edmondson

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