Revisiting in Brief: The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art

March 22, 2010

When I think about the intangibles of a conservation treatment, I generally consider the decision-making process: why one treatment strategy over another or what aspects of the object were given priority for preservation and what was determined to be expendable.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, various approaches seem to come in and out of fashion as the philosophy of the field emerges, from traditional restoration to phased conservation to minimal intervention to digitization-driven projects.  In the lab, these changes frequently surface when treatments need to be revisited when the fail or during exhibition preparations.  In the literature, it an sometimes be quite striking to reflect back upon the “best” treatments of a previous era.

H.J. Plenderleith was the Director of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property and Keeper of the Research Laboratory of the British Museum when he published The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art: Treatment, Repair, and Restoration in 1956.  This handbook was intended to serve as a primary reference source for the care and treatment of arts and objects, although not a training manual or instruction guide.  However, reading through it today (and in this case reading the second edition of 1971), it is striking to see how much the basic approaches have changed, (at least in regards to books and manuscripts, I am not sure that I wish to speak for other specialties).  In part, these changes have to do with a fuller understanding of the impact of chemicals upon materials and an improvement in materials and equipment: Plenderleith is a serious proponent of utilizing DDT and thymol to control pests and mold.  To repair tears in paper, he suggests applying “one such reasonably permanent self-adhesive tape…Magic Tape 810,” aka Scotch Tape.  (Remember, Tape is Evil)  Other methods are simply questionable, such as removing a bound leaf by inserting a wet string into the gutter and closing the volume for a few minutes before tearing the leaf out.

Overall, revisiting this text with more professional experience under my belt, I was struck not so much by the fact that methods have changed, but rather how they have changed.  Penderleith seems to fully embrace the post-war enthusiasm for science, technology, and progress in all treatments.  If there was a chemical that could do the job, it should be applied forthwith.  In some ways, I feel as if the field of conservation has walked back from this full-throated embrace of “progress” to an approach that better balances traditional craft approaches with new materials and equipment.  (Here, I am thinking of encapsulation rather than lamination or silking as a method that doesn’t physically alter the individual object* and board-slotting as a means to reconstruct case-bindings as a alternative to traditional re-backing.) I am not sure if this change is an indication that the field has lost some of its enduring confidence or whether it is tied into post-modern notions of ownership and cultural colonialism or whether it is simply progress in its purest form, but the philosophy of minimal intervention does not seem to have any serious challengers at the moment, although perhaps one could make the argument that the creation of digital objects will impact how we value the physical object in collections?

*Which is not so say that encapsulation of multi-leaf items such as scrapbooks does not significantly change how a volume is “read” and read, only that it does not physically affect the paper surface, even though it influences how the user interacts with it.

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