Should Art Conservation Be a Demonstration Exhibit In Public?

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Introduction by Sharra Grow, Editor for the International Institute for Conservation (IIC)

This past November, Apollo published the article “Should paintings be conserved in public?” written by Conservator Ian McClure and Curator Paul Taylor. The authors called into question the overall worth of such public displays of conservation suggesting that, rather than inspiring on-lookers, the main message the visiting public receives is that conservation work is tedious and boring. And while trying to show the candid daily work of the conservator, what visitors actually see is still carefully choreographed.

Public conservation projects are believed by many to allow works of art (especially public favorites) to remain on display. But is it worth the effort when they are obstructed by conservators and equipment, unflattering lighting, and other such eyesores?

Taylor argues that public conservation treatments have been used as a way to declare professional transparency, holding conservators accountable for their actions. But he counters that this is not a valid reason for conducting public treatments as it is not a proper form of peer review. So, is public conservation worth the extra time, effort, and stress, or is a simple blog post, for instance, just as effective? 

Below are the thoughtful responses of some renowned conservators known for their expertise in public conservation and advocacy. Do you have thoughts and ideas you want to share? Contact NiC Editor Sharra Grow

By Scott Haskins
The Apollo article, “Should paintings be conserved in public?” made some good points; as Ian McClure mentioned, what is actually gained other than a performance curiosity? 

General interest, seeing the conservation lab equipment, giving art conservators a chance to interact with the public (risky perhaps?) are all good, but working on well-known works of art in public gives people a feeling that they have made a “special sighting,” perhaps something worth posting on social media. It gives them something to tell their friends and family. Does the museum want to stoke the fire of visitors story-telling about their day at the museum? Promotion of a museum and its purposes is not a bad thing, and social media can help fan that fire. So, give the public something interesting or even famous to “discover.” Add to that some calculated drama and special stories, and the awareness can help fundraise or get new members.

I enjoyed 15 minutes of peering through a window at the Natural History Museum of Utah display lab for the conservation of a T-Rex skull last year. It was interesting to hear the visitor comments… all good. Perhaps the quality of the item being worked on helps to hold people at the window. I told a bunch of people what I saw and enthusiastically recommended to my family in the area to put this museum visit on their to-do list.

The two purposes of collection items being conserved in public, I think, are the opportunity to tell stories and, of course, to educate… but that’s all about telling stories again. Stories are what hold people to a blog post. Interesting stories help people watch a video through to the end. Stories are what captivate imagination. Interesting stories get retold. I think that is what the museum needs to do with art conservators on display. 

Just setting the art conservators to work behind glass on any old thing, I’m guessing, will not have much impact. But if the chance for the public to get a special behind-the-scenes look is enhanced with videos, photos, comparisons, or scientific data on display, there will be much more to vary the experience for visitors. Is the presented information and display leading or introducing the visitor to somewhere else to go in the collection—another display perhaps, to view more rare and special objects?

Is this kind of display sort of like the zoo? How long can you watch a lion sleep? Art conservation, as it was pointed out, can be a slow, boring process. But if the museum has fun with it, this type of public awareness can be kind of a grass roots approach to PR. 

Scott Haskins
Owner, Fine Art Conservation Laboratories
Fine Art Conservator, Consultant, Mentor, Author

By Valeria Merlini and Daniela Storti
To publicly restore a work of art is a cultural and human experience that leaves a profound mark on everyone—on those who carry out the restoration and those who witness it. A public, on-site restoration is an extraordinary opportunity for exchange between the restorers of the work of art and the public who, if the project is done properly, participates with interest and enthusiasm. During our first experience of this kind in 1999, when we restored The Pilgrim’s Madonna by Caravaggio inside the Sant’Agostino Basilica in Rome (where it is still located today), this public format was still very new and innovative but immediately proved a success, drawing attention to our work and informing the public of the importance of our field. By restoring the painting on site, we achieved our goal of making sure the painting remained accessible to both churchgoers and art enthusiasts, allowing the public to follow our work in all of its phases; we built a glass scaffolding, set up a weekly appointment to answer visitor questions, and provided the public with real-time scientific and technical data. 

Over the next few years we carried out similar projects, like the restoration of the Santa Maria dell’Anima Church’s altar piece by Giulio Romano in 2008, and the Adoration of the Shepherds by Caravaggio in 2010. These treatments were carried out in ground-level spaces that were visible to passersby, made possible by Italy’s Chamber of Deputies. In both cases the public could ask the restorers questions as they worked, and all phases of the restoration were filmed and edited into a short video which was displayed on a screen allowing visitors the opportunity to see and understand all the phases of the restoration up to that point. 

The experience that moved us the most was the 2015 restoration of the majestic work by 17th-century master Luca Giordano, Christ Among the Doctors, from Rome’s National Gallery of Antique Art in Palazzo Corsini. We restored this work inside the auditorium of a public high school before the eyes of the students. For four exciting months the students had access to the laboratory throughout the school day, allowing them to follow the conservation process independently or with the guidance of their teachers, giving them a first-hand understanding of the technical complexities of our profession.

To publicly restore a work of art certainly requires greater mental effort than that required for a restoration done privately in a laboratory, and in order to properly execute it one must be suited to work in an atypical environment and have good communication skills. Based on our experience, sharing this side of the art world with people outside our field changes the dynamic between the public and those extraordinary artistic works created by masters.

Inevitably in Italy, like in the rest of the world, museums and galleries gather together numerous priceless masterpieces (sometimes to the detriment of their individual peculiarities) limiting their ability to be understood properly because of the issues that arise from bringing together so many different artworks; the challenge of properly lighting individual paintings; the loss of context when artworks are taken out of their original location or purpose; or simply the fact that, for security reasons, visitors have to stand at a significant distance. Moreover, it is important to point out that in the last twenty years, thanks to technology, art is much more accessible with many images at viewers’ fingertips. This change, however, has caused some confusion over the artisanal value of artworks which have increasingly become—especially among younger generations—simply images.
The role of the restorer is to take care of the physical materials of which the artwork is made—taking care of its structure rather than just its image—as this is the only way we can actually guarantee its survival through time. 

To put the public in direct contact with the aspects that make a work of art unique, urging the comprehension of its artisanal value—the materials, the techniques—over the course of the conservation process, provides an understanding that would be hard for the public to get anywhere else. 

While our job is very complex and requires extensive knowledge and knowhow, it’s very easy to explain and narrate. For too much time restoration has been interpreted as a mix of manual abilities and alchemical tricks carried out behind closed doors in inaccessible laboratories with artworks entering wrapped up and reemerging bright and shiny, like new, often arousing intense debates. Sharing with the public what goes on inside restoration labs is healthy and central to preserving interest in our shared cultural heritage. Making this a public experience ensures that art conservation will always be carried out with a clear scientific approach. 

For these reasons our team has recently decided to open our studio, where we carry out most of our work, precisely because we are convinced that sharing our marvelous work is almost as exciting as performing it. 

Valeria Merlini and Daniela Storti
Owners and Head Conservators

Merlini Storti Art Restoration and Conservation, Rome
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