Will the Future of Art Conservation be Found In A Software Program?

Today’s post is an opinion essay by longtime MRCG member Tom Heller. Tom is the Conservator of Furniture, Wooden Artifacts, and Frames, associated with Heller Conservation Services, which is based just outside of Nashville, Tennessee. 


“It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.”

― Albert Einstein

The question may seem silly at first read, but consider the increasing perfection of three- dimensional computer-generated objects. Why do we revere art and craft? Why do we venerate it by putting it in museums, in galleries, and in our homes? Why has so much time and treasure been allocated to creating incredible masterpieces of architecture, paintings, drawings, sculpture, furniture, literature, and music throughout human existence?

It’s easy to answer the question if the human nature of it is considered. Using our imagination we can take raw materials, manipulate them in various ways, and create something that looks nothing like the particular raw material(s) from which the object is created. The examples of such creations are endless. Human beings seem to have a need to create beautiful majestic things, things which inspire and uplift the spirit – cave paintings in France, Hindu rock architecture, cathedrals that seem to defy gravity to take-your-pick in the 21st century. It’s ingrained in what makes us human. Imagine the idea of some group of people, thousands of years ago, wanting to memorialize the surroundings, culture, religion, and maybe just the mundane everyday life of what is now Lascaux, France.

In the area of Tennessee in which we live cave paintings by Native Americans, often thousands of years old, are being studied by archeologists at the University of Tennessee Knoxville and Mississippi State University. (Read about it here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2343766/American-cave-rock-art-lay-hidden-SIX-THOUSAND-YEARS-offers-unique-remarkable-insight-Native-American-societies-lived-lives.html) The composition of the North American cave paintings is similar to those found in Lascaux, France. Mythical human/animal beasts, vegetation, hunting scenes, communal rituals, etc. Two cultures with no cross pollination, no common language, nothing in common but their nature, express themselves in nearly the same way. And we, thousands of years removed, revere the work of these ancient people just as they surely revered it.

Our purpose, as conservators, is preserving artifacts. We do this in large part for future generations to enjoy. Years are spent studying and training in an effort to perfect the craft of conservation. When we put our hands to an object we do it in a reverential way, thinking of the maker and the processes involved in the creation.

Lately, an argument is being made that, if fully realized, may destroy the very essence of how we see and subsequently respond to art and possibly reform the nature of our profession: namely, that creating reproductions, especially digital reproductions, is an appropriate way to preserve art and cultural heritage and make them accessible. This application of nascent technology is still in its exploratory phase, but it is rapidly changing the way audiences interact with art. For example, “Are replicas changing the way we see art?” (Smithsonian Magazine), discusses the human experience of digital reproductions, and the ReACH Project: Reproduction of Art and Cultural Heritage (V&A, UNESCO) is working to create and establish international best practices for institutions engaging with reproductions of artworks.

There may be some good reasons for digitally reproducing art work. But what are the unknowns of an initiative such as the ReACH project? How will digital copies be treated? Will the copies themselves become the art? Who will get to see the originals? Will anyone get to see them? As I have noted, art is what it is because it’s ultimately human expression. I can’t imagine it will have the same appeal if it’s generated by the magical workings of a microchip – unseen and often impossible to describe.

I love old things. I love what old things reveal if looked at in the right way. All the imperfections that come about from a long existence make the thing compelling – the fading of colors, shrinkage, cracking, staining and all sorts of decay. While working on old things I see the previous repairs, the attempts to preserve beauty. These all contribute to the objects’ character, its story and the value placed on it.

There’s a wonderful short story by G.K. Chesterton that I think apt:

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

–G.K. Chesterton, “The Drift from Domesticity,” The Thing  (1929)

Is our profession in danger of becoming antiquated by digital technology? Are we inadvertently contributing to our possible obsolescence by the good intentioned argument for promoting preventive conservation practices? Practices that would lend themselves to the increasing use of digital reproductions? Preventive conservation certainly has its usefulness when properly considered, but should it be thought of as an alternative to the practice of down-and-dirty bench work? Is it possible that the increasing use of the latest technology, coupled with preventive conservation practices, will lead to an ever-expanding divide between the museum conservator and the conservator in private practice? And if it does, what are the possible consequences?

We should think this through very carefully before making decisions we may come to regret. If we become overly seduced by a form of mechanical rationalism, that is, the coolness and convenience of three-dimensional computer-generated objects replacing the human element, will art still inspire? A reproduction that comes out of what is essentially a machine does not have the ‘soul’ of that which comes from the hand of mankind. Will the public consider a perfectly rendered, beautifully candle-lit computer-generated copy, on a museum wall, as it does a masterwork, hundreds of years old?

Our profession will be better served and the cultural value of art enhanced if we combine craft and the technology available to us to preserve our material history. It is the path the intelligent reformer might very likely recommend.

 

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Observations from the “Gels in Conservation” conference (London, October 2017): Part 6

This is the final post in a six-part series by member and former MRCG officer Jodie Utter, the Senior Conservator of Works on Paper at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Jodie writes about her experience at the London “Gels in Conservation” conference co-hosted by the Tate and IAP (International Academic Projects, Ltd.), including her takeaways and links to videos of many of the presentations on current research in this area. 


Part 6: Michelle Sullivan, “Rigid polysaccharide gels for paper conservation: a residue study”

 

1. conference logo

This blog post is part of a series of observations about the London “Gels in Conservation” conference co-hosted by the Tate and IAP (International Academic Projects, Ltd). In mid-October, over the course of three days, some 41 authors presented research, techniques and ideas on gels in conservation. The talks were excellent, and I’ve focused on four that were notable for the wide range of materials treated and challenges faced. They ranged from coating/grime removal from a giant sequoia tree cross section, to dirt and varnish removal from Delacroix wall paintings, to removal of repairs from a fragile felt hat from a 18th century shipwreck, and an experiment comparing residues left behind by various gels on paper.

2. sullivan research ques

Research questions.

The fourth and final talk I wanted to highlight is Michelle Sullivan’s “Rigid polysaccharide gels for paper conservation: a residue study” — of particular interest to me as a paper conservator. It was one of the few studies exploring quantitatively if residue is left behind by gels used in the treatment of works on paper. If so, did how does that residue impact the paper? To easily track residue on the paper samples, fluorescein dyes visible in UV light were added to the gels tested. The experiment used agarose, gellan gum and methyl cellulose gels in three different concentrations applied to three different papers for three different time periods. In addition, a few variables were added to mimic treatment, such as applying the gels through Japanese paper and clearing the gels using a damp swab. Besides surface examination, cross sections of the samples were also taken to see if the gels were penetrating the paper surface. The cross sections seemed to suggest that gellan gum was being absorbed into the paper. Sullivan found that all the gels tested left a residue, with gellan gum apparently leaving behind the most. She found that applying the gels through a Japanese paper barrier was the most effective method in minimizing residue. After oven aging for 21 days, the rag sample treated with gellan gum darkened slightly, while all the other samples did not. Sullivan proposed that the darkening might be related to the gelatin content of the rag test paper. She plans to expand her test variables and continue to build on this research. This feels like very important research and I eagerly await to results of the next phase of her work.

3. residue set up

Residue experiment set-up

This blog series is a result of receiving the FAIC Carolyn Horton grant to help me attend the conference. I would like to gratefully acknowledge the FAIC for helping make it possible for me to attend this important conference.

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Observations from the “Gels in Conservation” conference (London, October 2017): Part 5

This is the fifth post in a six-part series by member and former MRCG officer Jodie Utter, the Senior Conservator of Works on Paper at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Jodie writes about her experience at the London “Gels in Conservation” conference co-hosted by the Tate and IAP (International Academic Projects, Ltd.), including her takeaways and links to videos of many of the presentations on current research in this area. Stay tuned– the final part will be published later this week!


Part 5: Jonathan Clark, “Revisiting a shipwrecked felt hat for Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust: a multidisciplinary approach”

1. conference logo

This blog post is part of a series of observations about the London “Gels in Conservation” conference co-hosted by the Tate and IAP (International Academic Projects, Ltd). In mid-October, over the course of three days, some 41 authors presented research, techniques and ideas on gels in conservation. The talks were excellent, and I’ve focused on four that were notable for the wide range of materials treated and challenges faced. They ranged from coating/grime removal from a giant sequoia tree cross section, to dirt and varnish removal from Delacroix wall paintings, to removal of repairs from a fragile felt hat from a 18th century shipwreck, and an experiment comparing residues left behind by various gels on paper.

Felt hat during treatment

Jonathan Clark’s presentation, “Revisiting a shipwrecked felt hat for Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust: a multidisciplinary approach” featured a really cool felt hat from a 1758 shipwreck. The project resulted in an unusual opportunity for collaboration between a textile and an objects conservator–both bringing needed experience to successfully treat the hat. In the past, the object had been treated aggressively with layers of synthetic materials and heavy cardboard fills. The hat was misshapen as a result of the thick repairs, making it difficult to fully see the original object. The treatment objective was to release the fragile felt hat from its past repairs and reshape it to its intended form without harming the object.

Acetone softened the thick unknown adhesive, so both acetone vapor and solvent gels were used to release and reduce the adhesive. The acetone solvent gel was applied through spider tissue, a very soft and strong paper (100% manila fibers). Once in place, the spider tissue was pre-wetted with methylated spirits, then the gel was applied via spatula, which was then covered with plastic wrap to slow evaporation. Once the old repairs were removed the hat remained misshapen. To further soften the remaining adhesive holding the felt hat out of shape, it was placed in an acetone vapor environment. The softened pliable hat was then weighted and pinned to a Fosshape form, a shrinkable polyester felt, used by textile conservators to create mounts. The end result was an object that was stable and could safely be stored showing only its original materials.

3. felt hat after treatment

Felt hat after treatment.

This blog series is a result of receiving the FAIC Carolyn Horton grant to help me attend the conference. I would like to gratefully acknowledge the FAIC for helping make it possible for me to attend this important conference.

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Observations from the “Gels in Conservation” conference (London, October 2017): Part 4

This is the fourth post in a six-part series by member and former MRCG officer Jodie Utter, the Senior Conservator of Works on Paper at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Jodie writes about her experience at the London “Gels in Conservation” conference co-hosted by the Tate and IAP (International Academic Projects, Ltd.), including her takeaways and links to videos of many of the presentations on current research in this area. Stay tuned– new parts will be published twice per week!


Part 4: Alina Moskalik-Detalle, “Conservation of murals by Eugene Delacroix at Saint Sulpice, Paris”

1. conference logo

This blog post is part of a series of observations about the London “Gels in Conservation” conference co-hosted by the Tate and IAP (International Academic Projects, Ltd). In mid-October, over the course of three days, some 41 authors presented research, techniques and ideas on gels in conservation. The talks were excellent, and I’ve focused on four that were notable for the wide range of materials treated and challenges faced. They ranged from coating/grime removal from a giant sequoia tree cross section, to dirt and varnish removal from Delacroix wall paintings, to removal of repairs from a fragile felt hat from a 18th century shipwreck, and an experiment comparing residues left behind by various gels on paper.

2. Delacroix removing coatings

Alina Moskalik-Detalle describes the coating removal.

In the second of four talks, Alina Moskalik-Detalle presented “Conservation of murals by Eugene Delacroix at Saint Sulpice, Paris.” The talk was interesting for its scale and challenges. Because I’ve gone to see these murals many times over the years, the talk was also personally interesting. Each time I visited, I left somewhat disappointed by the darkened, flat, dull murals. As luck would have it, I was scheduled to travel to Paris a week after attending the gels conference. What I saw when I visited Ste. Sulpice was truly remarkable—color, depth, and drama. The cleaning had totally transformed these murals. Naturally, I couldn’t help myself, I actively looked for shiny patches—the results from this treatment were remarkable. This multi-year project involved numerous conservators, including collaboration with Richard Wolbers. Some of the treatment challenges included flaking paint, complex paint layers, multiple restorations, rising damp in the walls, carbon based grime, and, if that wasn’t enough, the paint was very sensitive to organic solvents. The conservators wanted to limit penetration of their solvent gels without leaving a residue or tide line behind. They wanted good contact between the gels and the substrate, control of the action of water, and to create mixtures of solvents that would clean effectively without damaging the paint layers. After cleaning tests were performed, a treatment protocol emerged: by pre-saturation of the areas being treated with D4 cyclomethicone followed by the application of silicone solvents gels to the mural’s surfaces, tide lines were avoided, grime could be removed, the gels could be cleared, and residue was limited. The D4 is a slow evaporator, which allowed about a 30 minute working time for the application of the gel and subsequent grime removal without harming the paint layer.

3. Delacroix murals detail cleaning with gels

Delacroix mural detail, during treatment.

The gels were made and applied in a paste-like consistency for maximum control of where the material was placed. It clung to the vertical walls and horizontal ceiling long enough to be effective. Using D4-based emulsions to clean the mural’s paint surfaces allowed the removal of surface soil without stripping wax or oily components from the paint films themselves. Because the emulsions were surfactant-free, it was easier to clear them from the treated surfaces. Although analysis of samples didn’t show residue left behind on the surface, when the conservators tried to consolidate flaking areas of paint, they had trouble with adhesion– it is unclear why. It will be interesting to see how these murals age over time, and, if further treatment is needed in future, how re-treatable they are.

4. Jodie in Delacroix chapel

Jodie visits the murals after treatment.

This blog series is a result of receiving the FAIC Carolyn Horton grant to help me attend the conference. I would like to gratefully acknowledge the FAIC for helping make it possible for me to attend this important conference.

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Observations from the “Gels in Conservation” conference (London, October 2017): Part 3

This is the third post in a six-part series by member and former MRCG officer Jodie Utter, the Senior Conservator of Works on Paper at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Jodie writes about her experience at the London “Gels in Conservation” conference co-hosted by the Tate and IAP (International Academic Projects, Ltd.), including her takeaways and links to videos of many of the presentations on current research in this area. Stay tuned– new parts will be published twice per week!


Lu Allington-Jones, “Giant sequoia: an extraordinary case study involving Carbopol gel”

1. conference logo

This blog post is part of a series of observations about the London “Gels in Conservation” conference co-hosted by the Tate and IAP (International Academic Projects, Ltd). In mid-October, over the course of three days, some 41 authors presented research, techniques and ideas on gels in conservation. The talks were excellent, and I’ve focused on four that were notable for the wide range of materials treated and challenges faced. They ranged from coating/grime removal from a giant sequoia tree cross section, to dirt and varnish removal from Delacroix wall paintings, to removal of repairs from a fragile felt hat from a 18th century shipwreck, and an experiment comparing residues left behind by various gels on paper.

2. giant sequoia displayed

The sequoia cross section during treatment in the upper gallery.

The first session of these four, “Giant sequoia: an extraordinary case study involving Carbopol gel”, was presented by Lu Allington-Jones and was intriguing for several reasons. The object was enormous–5 meters (over 16 feet) in diameter. The size alone produced significant challenges, for which solvent gel was particularly suited. The scale meant that it would be treated in situ in full view of the public, thus potentially exposing patrons to chemical fumes; it would require large amounts of materials to treat; and it was at the top of an open staircase, meaning significant height came into play, as well. The giant sequoia cross-section had been on continual display since 1894, so it was incredibly dusty, had a darkened and cracking lacquer coating, and had a very friable bark around its perimeter. A material was needed that could safely remove the failed coatings and accumulated dust without penetrating the surface, harming the friable bark, or creating an unsafe environment for the conservators and patrons during treatment. Using a solvent gel had the advantage of keeping the solvents contained, reducing solvent vapor, and could act as a poultice to reduce grime and solubilize the failed coating. In addition, because gel ensures contact with the treated surface, it means that a lower concentration of solvent could be used as compared to a free liquid solvent. The gel was made 24 hours ahead in Ziploc baggies, the time allowed the gel to reach the needed smoothness and viscosity.

3. giant sequoia gel application and removal detail

Left: Gel application process. Right: removing the used gel from the surface with cardboard.

For application, the Ziploc bags were cut open at one end, the gel squeezed out and spread to 20 mm thick (about ¾”), then covered with plastic wrap to slow evaporation, giving the conservator about an hour of working time before the gel became too sticky and unworkable. Once the gel softened the coating, it was then removed trowel-like with a piece of cardboard, repeated, then cleared with industrial methylated spirits and wipes. A significant lesson learned about the gel was once it reached 73ºF or more, it became runny, causing the gel to slip off the vertical surfaces being treated, which didn’t allow enough working time to reduce the surface coating adequately. Once treated, the cross section was varnished with a protective layer of Laropal A81. The cross section looked amazing in the after-treatment images. I would encourage everyone to read the article in the post prints as it describes the details of challenges, decision-making, and final outcomes.

This blog series is a result of receiving the FAIC Carolyn Horton grant to help me attend the conference. I would like to gratefully acknowledge the FAIC for helping make it possible for me to attend this important conference.

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