Great video from the National Gallery of Art up on Art Babble on the cleaning of a 17th c. Dutch painting which held a little surprise for the curators.

Update: if the video below isn’t loading, try the link above.

The May 11th edition of the New Yorker contains one of the best depictions of conservation that I have come across in the (elite?) popular media, an eight page article on Christian Scheidemann, a conservator of contemporary art and head of Contemporary Conservation in New York City.  Unfortunately, it is behind the subscription wall, but I highly recommend using your local library to find a copy to read.

On some level, I admit that the article may be a tad fawning, but it seems to capture both a sense of the kinds of work that is undertaken and a feel for the environment in which it is done.  Certainly it reads as a more authentic representation than that NY Times article

Still, at the end of the article, I found myself bothered by the feeling that much of Scheidemann’s most interesting work was, contrary to the point that the article highlighted about how “The prevailing code of ethics insists that anything that is done to a work of art should be imperceptible and reversible,” rather invasive.  For one piece, he had to coat the entire latex structure with an acrylic resin.  For another, he plasticized the pieces of food that were part of the work.  I would guess that these were neither imperceptible nor reversible, but as the piece continued Scheidemann’s engagement with the <i>artists</i> themselves in working with their pieces and their production struck me.

Here is a conservator who works with difficult materials, for which an easy “permanent” answer is rarely apparent, but he also spends significant amounts of time and energy working with the artists, the creators, to help them find ways to make their visions and works last longer <i>before they ever need actual conservation treatment</i>.  This is a lesson that I think we need to take to heart.  Admittedly, in most cases, the producers of the objects that conservators work on are long dead, but society continues to create items that we know will be collected and accessioned in the future.  How can we work to ensure that those objects will be made with materials that will help them last longer

The best example that I can think of is the efforts by libraries in the 1980s to demand that books were printed on “permanent paper”, a move that eventually increased the availability of “acid-free” paper in all uses.  Can and should conservators team with artists, libraries, and governments to institute better practices or better materials?