CAN THE COMPLEX BE MADE SIMPLE? INFORMING THE PUBLIC ABOUT CONSERVATION THROUGH MUSEUM EXHIBITS
JERRY C. PODANY, & SUSAN LANSING MAISH
During recent years the public's interest in conservation of both our natural resources and our cultural heritage has increased. Practicing conservators welcome this interest and the opportunity to inform the public about the work and the guiding principles of their profession. A current priority of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works is to increase public awareness of the important functions of conservation. The benefits of such awareness efforts go far beyond the enlightenment of single individuals. Funding through federal, state, and local agencies can be influenced by heightening the concern of both individuals and private-sector leaders. When the public gains a clearer understanding of conservation, both private and public collections are scrutinized through more informed eyes and the need for their protection takes on increased importance. And of course, some are so inspired by what they learn that they decide to join the profession.
As part of the effort to enhance public awareness, the Antiquities Conservation Department of the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with the Antiquities Curatorial and Education and Academic Affairs departments, set out to produce an exhibition entitled Preserving the Past that would explain the conservation principles and activities related to the museum's collection of ancient art. Since no activity in a museum is ever independent or done by one person and since any exhibition, regardless of theme or intent, requires a wide range of talents and abilities, a small planning team was assembled from the participating departments to define the goals and mechanisms of the exhibition.
Ultimately, the effort also required the expertise of many other departments, including audiovisual, preparations, publications, and photo services. From the initial planning to the opening, the exhibition took about one year to develop. The budget was provided by the Education and Academic Affairs Department. The planning team's first task was to distill the basic precepts of the conservation profession and the myriad of choices a conservator must make with each action taken. What did the public already know about conservation? What did we wish to tell them, and in what order of importance? The plan rapidly expanded, and the complexities of the issues to be presented in a limited amount of space and time became the first and most substantial hurdle for the team. An attempt to present any conservation treatment in a condensed, easily accessible, didactic display is risky. Many, perhaps most, of the concepts that become second nature to working conservators turn out to be quite difficult to distill for consumption by a general audience. After all, it is often difficult to communicate these aspects to fellow professionals within the museum world, let alone to the completely uninitiated visitor. Our challenge was to come up with displays that would do more than just tell a varied audience what we do every day (not always an exciting story) or romanticize our roles by presenting only dramatic before-and-after shots of cultural salvation. Instead, we hoped to involve visitors in a deeper appreciation of what they were seeing or what they had not been aware of.
Surveys at the Getty Museum have shown that visitors spend an average of two to three minutes in any one gallery. With this information in mind, we planned installations that would capture the attention of the public and engage them for a sufficient time to provide a brief overview of the conservation department's work. Recognizing that there are many different ways of acquiring knowledge, we developed interactive learning opportunities as well as traditional interpretive devises such as labels. Throughout the exhibition, several layers of information were available. The tone and format were relatively informal. There was no set agenda; visitors were free to choose those aspects that especially intrigued them.
One of the strategies strongly supported by the Education and Academic Affairs Department in previous interactive exhibits was the use of trained facilitators, chosen from the museum education staff and a selected group of docents. The facilitators were stationed in the gallery at all times. Their main function was to interact with visitors, encourage their involvement in the displays, and answer questions or provide avenues by which visitors could obtain the answers. The facilitators also assured the smooth working of the various pieces of exhibit hardware. Each facilitator attended a series of lectures on conservation topics given by the staff of the Antiquities Conservation Department. These lectures provided a general background knowledge of the purpose of conservation so that facilitators would be able to answer basic questions about the conservation profession and its activities. Thus the facilitators could offer visitors one more layer of information by which complex issues could be made accessible. The facilitators received copies of a handout listing pertinent publications available in the museum bookstore as well as the addresses of conservation graduate programs and AIC. This handout could be given to visitors who expressed interest in further study or requested more detailed information about conservation issues and training.
It was to our advantage to center the exhibition around the conservation of antiquities. Such a focus allowed for a more unified and defined scope to both the technical and the philosophical precepts and, in the end, allowed more time to discuss the profession as a whole. It opened a clear avenue to explain “minimal intervention” and permitted an emphasis on efforts to preserve rather than restore.
Preserving the Past was located in a gallery adjacent to the antiquities collection. This location allowed visitors to take what they had seen and quickly relate it to the collection as a whole. To present a logical flow of information, the exhibition was divided into four sections: Introduction, Scientific Examination, Treatment, and Environment.