Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Conservation and Restoration

How do we treat cultural objects which have survived generations of changing taste? Are we simply custodians, and, if so, what is our role in their survival for future generations to appreciate and enjoy?

As a "furniture conservator in private practice," I am in many ways free to establish my own work ethic in my business. I could, for example, use epoxy and foam or add a zebra skin to a Chippendale chair, as the market demands. On the other hand, I could refuse (as I did) to cut out the back panels of a Baroque marquetry armoire, dated 1698, to fit the gigantic television of a rich client. (She was very upset that I refused her request, and I lost a lot of work with that decision.)

Conservators are like doctors in that they are supposed to "do no harm." Unlike doctors, we are also obliged to not remove original material. Conservation means conserving. That said, sometimes it is necessary to make difficult decisions to do invasive work for the survival of the object. In that case, the conservator becomes a restorer. Restoration is necessary when a part of the object has become damaged beyond repair, by bugs, rot or accident. Restoration must be as authentic as possible, but not with any suspicion of "faking." It is a challenging job.

Consider, as a typical example, the question of "original finish" which I have discussed here before. I usually tell my clients that there are two questions to consider when they ask me about refinishing. (1): "Is the finish protecting the wood?" and (2): "Is the appearance of the finish beautiful?"

In the first case, if the finish is damaged beyond repair and no longer protecting the wood, I recommend replacing it with an identical finish. In general, the paste wax protects the polish which protects the wood which protects the protein glues from humidity and mold. If the finish fails, the object will quickly deteriorate. In addition, with many homeowners using oil polishes and sprays, a finish which is missing in areas will allow the uneven penetration of these materials which will damage the wood.

In the second case, if the client appreciates the dark, dirty and opaque look of the finish, fine. Many collectors pay a premium for that look. On the other hand, even the most famous furniture dealers on Antiques Roadshow, who complain about the loss of value when a piece has been refinished, have highly skilled refinishers working in their businesses who do exactly that. Their advice would be more instructive if they explained why using synthetic finishes damages the value but restoring correctly the original finish increases value.

I have seen respected museums make terrible decisions about conservation. When I was studying at Winterthur, in the summer of 1978, I fell in love with the Boston lacquer high chest made by John Pimm, spending hours closely examining the decorative surface. It was one of the signature pieces in their collection, and worth a great deal of money, simply because of the condition of the finish. Soon after that, on another visit, I was horrified to discover that they had coated the surface with a new product, which gave it a shiny, plastic glow. When I asked the conservator about it, he indicated that this new product had a special solvent, and in the future (should it be necessary!) this solvent would dissolve the finish without harming the original finish underneath. Why experiment on this particular piece?

At another time, I believe it was in the Met in New York, I came upon a conservator who was injecting gallons of epoxy into cracks in an ancient carved stone statue. That was about 30 years ago, and I wonder what is the condition of that statue today?

In my mind, there are two obvious reasons to keep things original. The first is to protect the original character of the piece, exactly as it was made, and the second is to provide a learning tool for us to understand exactly how and why it was made that way in a historical and cultural context.

This brings me to the prejudice against upholstery as represented by the acceptance of "non intervention" upholstery methods pervasive today in many American museums. While I was at a conference in Williamsburg, the speaker (a conservator) asked the audience at the end of his talk if there were any questions. I was sitting in the front row, directly in front of the podium and I raised my hand.

"Sir, I note that you have objects on display which include many historic layers of finish, and the purpose of that display is to show the changing taste of fashion and style over time. At the same display, you have removed all evidence of upholstery and replaced it with foam and velcro upholstery. Why not treat the upholstery evidence in a similar way as the finish?"

His response was quick and shocking: "I am a conservator. My job is not to conserve things."

This is why I am in private practice. My job is to conserve things.


Joshua Klein said...

Yes, Patrick.
It seems to me that one person treating an object may wear several different hats in a single job. It seems confusing to call some people "restorers" and others "conservators" when these same people cross categories frequently.
I have been referring to myself as a "restorer" but have recently been utilizing "conservation" treatments. What does that make me?
Is it merely an education thing? Does one have to graduate from Winterthur/Delaware to earn the title "conservator"?

W. Patrick Edwards said...

I have been a member of AIC on and off many times over my career. AIC is the national group which represents the museum conservators. Every time I go to one of their conference, there is a noticeable divide between the conservators who work for museums and those of us (a real minority) who are "in private practice."

"We don't get no respect" sums it up.

In talking with those fellow "private" conservators, I realize they are active, intelligent and dedicated workers who avidly wish to do the right thing for the object. In one sense, they are on "the front lines" of the battle to conserve objects day to day.

Those who are "employed" have jobs which rely on basically taking a long time to do as little as possible. Study, research, analyze, publish, investigate, discuss, compare, examine, measure, and other similar activities make up their work.

I know this is a generalization and I am probably being unfair to those in the "industry" who actually produce significant research, but I am just making a point about the difference, as I see it.

To answer your basic question: Knowing what to do, when to do it, and how makes you a conservator. It is not a result of a degree issued by some school (although that helps). It is a result of clear thinking.

Joshua Klein said...

Amen. Thanks, Patrick. I am bent on a self-directed (with guidance from colleagues) study of furniture conservation and have sensed some of what you describe as the divide of private practice people and institutional people. It's encouraging to hear the studying is not all in vain. I'll keep on and someday I may just figure out a thing or two.

Be well, Patrick.