Art Conservation As Art

Those who cannot do, teach, and those who cannot make art, conserve it? Hardly.

Conservation of cultural heritage draws on a wide range of skills, from craftsmanship to polymer science, social history to fine arts, international law to mechanical engineering. Conservators come from wonderfully diverse backgrounds, and many of them have been or continue to be involved in the process of art production.

But what isn’t usually discussed, especially outside of the conservation community, is the beauty and art that can be found in the process of conservation itself.

The first comes from the act of looking. Really looking. Seeing the ravages of age, the patterns of surface texture, the fractals of corrosion. The object on the conservator’s table is often beautiful on its own, but the passage of time written into its molecules lends a layer of meaning and wonder. The concepts of decay, time, and destruction are not rare in many art forms, and seeing the way they mar or enhance cultural objects is a lesson in impermanence in miniature.

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Inherent vice: some processes, such as silk weighting, cause catastrophic degradation over time.  As far as we know, this process is irreversible.  However, sometimes destruction can be beautiful, as is seen here where the newly exposed weft threads offer a shock of pink against the faded satin, and chaos slowly eats into the meticulous embroidery. 

Some of these changes can be seen with the naked eye. The blackening from carbon pollution, a by-product of change and human ingenuity, obscures objects of manufactured beauty. This is commonly seen in the stunning shadowy skeletons of gothic architecture throughout Europe. Other decays can delight under magnification, which is frequently used to better understand degradation and materials during the course of treatment. The world opens up under the microscope, as what seem to be solid weave patterns transform into regular grids and mazes, and layers and textures otherwise unseen come into sharp focus.

Images from treatments often emerge, moments of beauty, the inevitable force of entropy, and scenes of our battle against it. Couching threads, tediously stitched by a conservator to hold together a fabric that, by the very nature of its composition, is doomed to continue to disintegrate, sometimes feels like a study of human nature, the fight against death, the cult of materialism. But also the desire to preserve and share, to teach, to learn, to interpret, discuss, and experience. In short, it feels a lot like art.

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Diagram for Japanese embroidery

In a more concrete way, perhaps, even the basic tools we use to describe treatment and condition, such as diagrams, become lovely drawings that stand alone as objects to appreciate. Diagrams of patterns, surface decorations, embroidery techniques, layers of patches, lines of creases, and soiling patterns have their own beauty. They are interpretations of an object, simplifications but also explorations of an aspect that affects the whole. The unnecessary is stripped away, and an essence is captured or facet amplified.

Every time a conservator acts or chooses not to act on an object, the course of its history is changed. This is part of why we all hold advanced degrees—it’s an ethical as well as practical decision every time. So if our treatments, often conducted tucked away in a secure lab, alter the object we work on, then they must become part of that object. Even if our actions are reversible, a standard that is often aimed for despite the realities of the concept, we are acting on the history of that art piece. So why not appreciate what we do, what we contribute, both as a part of the original work but also as acts of art in their own right?