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Removal of adherent surface deposits by physical chemical means (by cotton swab). Church of Suceviţa Monastery, burial chamber. Romania, Suceava.

Conservation-restoration (also referred to as conservation and restoration or simply conservation) is a profession devoted to the preservation of tangible cultural heritage for the future. Conservation activities include examination, documentation, treatment, and collections care, otherwise known as preventive conservation.[1] All of this work is supported by research and education.


Definition [edit]

A restorer at work.

The traditional definition of the role of the conservator involves the examination, conservation, and preservation of cultural heritage using "any methods that prove effective in keeping that property in as close to its original condition as possible for as long as possible."[2]

However, today the definition of the role of conservation has widened and would more accurately be described as that of ethical stewardship.

The conservator applies some simple ethical guidelines, such as:

  • Minimal intervention.
  • Appropriate materials and methods that aim to be reversible to reduce possible problems with future treatment, investigation, and use.
  • Full documentation of all work undertaken.

In order for the conservator to apply their professional expertise accordingly, they must take into account the views of the stakeholder, the values and meaning of the object, and the physical needs of the material, in order to decide upon an appropriate conservation strategy.

History [edit]

Key dates [edit]

The tradition of conservation in Europe some consider to have begun in 1565 with the restoration of the Sistine Chapel frescoes.

Brief history [edit]

An early video showing some activities in a conservation-restoration laboratory at the Rijksmuseum

The care of cultural patrimony has a long history, one that was primarily aimed at fixing and mending objects for their continued use and aesthetic enjoyment.[3] Until the early 20th century, artists were normally the ones called upon to repair damaged artworks. During the 19th century, however, the fields of science and art became increasingly intertwined as scientists such as Michael Faraday began to study the damaging effects of the environment to works of art. Louis Pasteur carried out scientific analysis on paint during this time period as well.[4] However, perhaps the first organized attempt to apply a theoretical framework to the conservation of cultural heritage came with the founding in the United Kingdom of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877. The society was founded by William Morris and Philip Webb, both of whom were deeply influenced by the writings of John Ruskin. During the same period, a French movement with similar aims was being developed under the direction of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, an architect and theorist, famous for his "restorations" of medieval buildings.

Since 1998, Harvard University wraps some of the valuable statues on its campus, such as this "Chinese stele", with waterproof covers every winter, in order to protect them from erosion caused by acid rain.[5]

Conservation as a distinct field of study initially developed in Germany, where in 1888 Friedrich Rathgen became the first chemist to be employed by a Museum, the Koniglichen Museen, Berlin (Royal Museums of Berlin). He not only developed a scientific approach to the care of objects in the collections, but disseminated this approach by publishing a "Handbook of Conservation" in 1898.[6] The early development of conservation in any area of the world is usually linked to the creation of positions for chemists within museums. However in the United Kingdom, pioneering research into painting materials and conservation, ceramics, and stone conservation was conducted by Arthur Pillans Laurie, academic chemist and Principal of Heriot-Watt University from 1900. Laurie's interests were fostered by William Holman Hunt.[7] In 1924 in the UK the chemist Harold Plenderleith began to work at the British Museum with Dr. Alexander Scott in the newly created Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, thus giving birth to the conservation profession in the UK.[8] This department was created by the museum to address the deteriorating condition of objects in the collection, damages which were a result of their being stored in the London Underground tunnels during the First World War. The creation of this department at the British Museum made Britain a prime force in this fledgling field, and moved the focus for the development of conservation theory and practice from Germany to Britain. In 1956 Plenderleith wrote a significant handbook called The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art, which supplanted Rathgen's earlier tome, and which set new standards for the development of art and cultural conservation.

In the United States, the development of conservation can be traced to the Fogg Art Museum, and Edward Waldo Forbes, the Director of the Fogg from 1909 to 1944. He encouraged technical investigation, and was Chairman of the Advisory Committee for the first technical journal, Technical Studies, in the Field of the Fine Arts, published by the Fogg from 1932 to 1942. Importantly he also brought onto the museum staff chemists. Rutherford John Gettens was the first chemist in the U. S. to be permanently employed by an art museum. He worked with George L. Stout, the founder and first editor of Technical Studies. Gettens and Stout co-authored Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopaedia, first published in 1942 and reprinted in 1966. This compendium is still cited regularly. Only a few dates and descriptions in Gettens' and Stout's book are now outdated.[9]

George T. Oliver, of Oliver Brothers Art Restoration and Art Conservation-Boston (Est. 1850 in New York City) invented the vacuum hot table for relining paintings in 1920’s; he filed a patent for the table in 1937.[10] Taylor's prototype table, which he designed and constructed, is still in operation. Oliver Brothers is believed to be the first and the oldest continuously operating art restoration company in the United States.

The focus of conservation development then accelerated in Britain and America, and it was in Britain that the first International Conservation Organisations developed. The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC) was incorporated under British law in 1950 as "a permanent organization to co-ordinate and improve the knowledge, methods, and working standards needed to protect and preserve precious materials of all kinds."[9] The rapid growth of conservation professional organizations, publications, journals, newsletters, both internationally and in localities, has spearheaded the development of the conservation profession, both practically and theoretically. Art historians and theorists such as Cesare Brandi have also played a significant role in developing conservation-restoration theory. In recent years ethical concerns have been at the forefront of developments in conservation. Most significantly has been the idea of Preventive conservation. This concept is based in part on the pioneering work by Garry Thomson CBE, and his book the Museum Environment, first published in 1978.[11] Thomson was associated with the National Gallery (London), it was here that he established a set of guidelines or environmental controls for the best conditions in which objects could be stored and displayed within the Museum Environment. Although his exact guidelines are no longer rigidly followed they did inspire this field of conservation.

Ethics [edit]

The conservator's work is guided by ethical standards. These take the form of applied ethics. Ethical standards have been established across the world, and national and international ethical guidelines have been written. One such example is:

Conservation OnLine's Ethical issues in conservation provides a number of articles on ethical issues in conservation; example of codes of ethics and guidelines for professional conduct in conservation and allied fields; and charters and treaties pertaining to ethical issues involving the preservation of cultural property.

As well as standards of practice conservators deal with wider ethical concerns, such as the debates as to whether all art is worth preserving.[13]

Specialization within the profession [edit]

Castle gate of Krnov before restoration (2001)
Castle gate of Krnov after restoration (2009)
Preserved historical quarter in Beirut Central District

The profession of conservation-restoration is broad and encompasses many areas of speciality. Specialities may include:

Caring for cultural heritage [edit]

Collections care [edit]

Many cultural works are sensitive to environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity and exposure to light and ultraviolet light. They must be protected in a controlled environment where such variables are maintained within a range of damage-limiting levels. Shielding from sunlight of artifacts such as watercolour paintings for example is usually necessary to prevent fading of pigments.

Collections care is an important element of museum policy. It is an essential responsibility of members of the museum profession to create and maintain a protective environment for the collections in their care, whether in store, on display, or in transit. A museum should carefully monitor the condition of collections to determine when an artifact requires conservation work and the services of a qualified conservator.

Work of preventive conservation in a rock wall with prehistoric paintings at the Serra da Capivara National Park. The work consists of filling the cracks to prevent the fragmentation of the wall.

Interventive conservation [edit]

Furniture conservation – Re-glueing loose element of solid nut marriage chest (probably Italy, 19th century)

Interventive Conservation refers to any act by a conservator that involves a direct interaction between the conservator and the cultural material. These interventive treatments could involve cleaning, stabilizing, repair, or even replacement of parts of the original object. It is essential that the conservator should fully justify any such work. Complete documentation of the work; carried out before, during, and after the treatment rules out chances of later doubts.

The principal goal of a conservator is to nullify or at least reduce the rate of deterioration of an object, this can be achieved through either non-interventive or interventive methodologies. Interventive methodologies include all those actions taken by the conservator to directly intervene with the material fabric of the object. Such actions include surface cleaning such as varnish removal, or consolidation such as securing flaking paint. Such interventive actions are carried out for a variety of reasons including; aesthetic choices, stabilization needs for structural integrity, or for cultural requirements for intangible continuity.

One of the guiding principles of conservation has traditionally been the idea of reversibility, that is that all interventions with the object should be fully reversible, and the object should be able to be returned to the state in which it was prior to the conservators intervention. Although this concept remains a guiding principle of the profession, it is a concept that has been widely critiqued within the conservation profession[14] and is now considered by many to be "a fuzzy concept".[15] Another important principle of conservation is that all alterations should be well documented and should be clearly distinguishable from the original object.[16]

An example of a highly publicized interventive conservation effort would be the conservation work conducted on the Sistine Chapel.

The conservation laboratory [edit]

The Lunder Conservation Center. Conservation staff for both the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are visible to the public through floor-to-ceiling glass walls that allow visitors to see firsthand all the techniques that conservators use to examine, treat and preserve artworks within a functioning conservation Laboratory.

Conservators routinely use chemical and scientific analysis for the examination and treatment of cultural works. The modern conservation lab uses equipment such as microscopes, spectrometers, and various x-ray regime instruments to better understand objects and their components. The data thus collected helps in deciding the conservation treatments to be provided to the object.

Country by country look [edit]

United States [edit]

Heritage Preservation, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a U.S. federal agency, produced The Heritage Health Index. The results of this work was the report A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America's Collections, which was published in December 2005 and concluded that immediate action is needed to prevent the loss of 190 million artifacts that are in need of conservation treatment. The report made four recommendations:

  • Institutions must give priority to providing safe conditions for the collections they hold in trust.
  • Every collecting institution must develop an emergency plan to protect its collections and train staff to carry it out.
  • Every institution must assign responsibility for caring for collections to members of its staff.
  • Individuals at all levels of government and in the private sector must assume responsibility for providing the support that will allow these collections to survive[17]

United Kingdom [edit]

In October 2006, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, a governmental department, authored a document: "Understanding the Future: Priorities for England's Museums".[18] This document was based on several years of consultation aimed to lay out the government's priorities for museums in the 21st century.

The document listed the following as priorities for the next decade:

  1. Museums will fulfil their potential as learning resources (pp 7–10).
    • Museums will be embedded into the delivery of education in every school in the country.
    • Understanding of the effectiveness of museum education will be improved further and best practice built into education programmes.
    • The value of museums' collections as a research resource will be well understood and better links built between the academic community and museums.
  2. Museums will embrace their role in fostering, exploring, celebrating and questioning the identities of diverse communities (pp 11–14).
    • The sector needs to work with partners in academia and beyond to create an intellectual framework supporting museums' capacity to tackle issues of identity.
    • The museum sector must continue to develop improved practical techniques for engaging communities of all sorts.
  3. Museums' collections will be more dynamic and better used (pp 15–18).
    • Government and the sector will find new ways to encourage museums to collect actively and strategically, especially the record of contemporary society.
    • The sector will develop new collaborative approaches to sharing and developing collections and related expertise.
  4. Museums' workforces will be dynamic, highly skilled and representative (pp 17–22).
    • Museums' governing bodies and workforces will be representative of the communities they serve.
    • Find more varied ways for a broader range of skills to come into museums.
    • Improve continuing professional development.
  5. Museums will work more closely with each other and partners outside the sector (pp 23–26).
    • A consistent evidence base of the contribution of all kinds of museums to the full range of public service agendas will be developed.
    • There will be deeper and longer lasting partnerships between the national museums and a broader range of regional partners.
    • Museums' international roles will be strengthened to improve museum programmes in this country and Britain's image, reputation and relationships abroad.

The conservation profession response to this report was on the whole less than favourable, the Institute of Conservation (ICON) published their response under the title "A Failure of Vision".[19] It had the following to say:

"No sector can look with confidence to the future if its key asset is worked harder and harder across an ever broadening range of objectives while the inputs required to sustain it are neglected."
"It is of major concern to us that the only part of this section which makes any acknowledgement of the need for greater resourcing is the part which refers to acquisitions. The original consultation paper made quite extensive reference to the importance of collections, the role of new technologies, and cultural property issues, but this appears to have been whittled away in the present document."


"When asked by the Commons Culture Media and Sport elect Committee CMS committee what he would like to see as a priority in the DCMS document arising from the 'Understanding the Future' consultation, Mr MacGregor responded 'I would like to see added there the need to conserve and research the collections, so that the collections can really play the role across the whole of the United Kingdom that they should.' So would we."

Further to this the ICON website summary report[20] lists the following specific recommendations:

  • A national survey to find out what the public want from museums, what motivates them to visit them and what makes for a rewarding visit.
  • A review of survey results and prioritisation of the various intrinsic, instrumental and institutional values to provide a clear basis for a 10-year strategy
  • HR consultants to be brought in from the commercial sector to review recruitment, career development and working practices in the national and regional museums.
  • A commitment to examine the potential for using Museum Accreditation as a more effective driver for improving recruitment, diversity, and career development across the sector.
  • DCMS to take full account of the eventual findings of the current Commons Select Committee enquiry into Care of Collections in the final version of this document
  • The adoption of those recommendations of the recent House of Lords enquiry into Science and Heritage which have a potential impact on the future of museums.

In November 2008, the UK based think tank Demos published an influential pamphlet entitled 'It's a material world: caring for the public realm',[21] in which they argue for integrating the public directly into efforts to conserve material culture, particularly that which is in the public, their argument, as stated on page 16, demonstrates their belief that society can benefit from conservation as a paradigm as well as a profession:

"conservators provide a paradigm not just for fixing things when they are broken, but for a wider social ethos of care, where we individually and collectively take responsibility and action"

Training [edit]

Training in conservation for many years took the form of an apprenticeship, whereby an apprentice slowly developed the necessary skills to undertake their job. For some specializations within conservation this is still the case. However, it is more common in the field of conservation today that the training required to become a practicing conservator comes from a recognized university course in conservation.[22]

The University can rarely provide all the necessary training in first hand experience that an apprenticeship can, and therefore in addition to graduate level training the profession also tends towards encouraging conservation students to spend time as an intern.

Conservation is an interdisciplinary field as conservators have backgrounds in the fine arts, sciences (including chemistry, biology, and materials science), and closely related disciplines, such as art history, archaeology, studio art, and anthropology. They also have design, fabrication, artistic, and other special skills necessary for the practical application of that knowledge.

Within the various schools that teach conservation, the approach differs according to the educational and vocational system within the country, and the focus of the school itself. This is acknowledged by the American Institute for Conservation who advise "Specific admission requirements differ and potential candidates are encouraged to contact the programs directly for details on prerequisites, application procedures, and program curriculum".[22]

Associations and professional organizations [edit]

Societies devoted to the care of cultural heritage have been in existence around the world for many years. One early example is the founding in 1877 of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in Britain to protect the built heritage, this society continues to be active today.[23]

The built heritage was also at the forefront of the growth of member based organizations in the United States for example, founded in 1889, the Richmond, Virginia-based Preservation Virginia (formerly known as the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities) was the United States' first statewide historic preservation group. In 2003, it changed its name to reflect its wider focus in statewide preservation issues.[24]

Today, professional conservators join and take part in the activities of numerous conservation associations and professional organizations with the wider conservation field, and within their area of specialization.

These organizations exist to "support the conservation professionals who preserve our cultural heritage".[25]

This involves upholding professional standards, promoting research and publications, providing educational opportunities, and fostering the exchange of knowledge among conservators, allied professionals, and the public.

International cultural heritage documents [edit]

Year Document Sponsor Text (English where available)
1931 Athens Charter International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments text
1931 Carta Di Atene Conferenza Internazionale di Atene text (Italian)
1932 Carta Italiana del restauro Consiglio Superiore Per Le Antichità e Belle Arti text (Italian)
1933 Charter of Athens IV CIAM text
1956 New Delhi Recommendation IX UNESCO text, text
1962 Paris Recommendation XII UNESCO text
1964 Venice Charter II International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments text, text
1964 Paris Recommendation XIII UNESCO text
1967 Norms of Quito OAS text (Spanish), text
1968 Paris Recommendation XV UNESCO text
1972 Paris Convention XVII UNESCO text
1972 Paris Recommendation XVII UNESCO text
1972 Carta Italiana del Restauro text (Italian)
1972 Stockholm Declaration UNEP text
1974 Santo Domingo Resolution, Dominican Republic Interamerican Seminar on the Conservation and Restoration of the Architectural Heritage of the Colonial and Republican Periods – OAS text (Portuguese), text (Portuguese)
1975 Declaration of Amsterdam Congress on the European Architectural Heritage text
1975 European Charter of the Architectural Heritage Council of Europe text
1976 Charter on Cultural Tourism, Brussels International Seminar on Contemporary Tourism and Humanism text
1976 Nairobi Recommendation XIX UNESCO text
1977 Machu Picchu Charter text (Portuguese), text (Portuguese), text (Spanish), ref (Spanish)
1981 Burra Charter ICOMOS text
1982 Florence Charter ICOMOS: Historic Gardens text, text
1982 Nairobi Declaration UNEP text
1982 Tlaxcala Declaration ICOMOS text
1982 México Declaration World Conference on Cultural Policies – MONDIACULT text, text
1983 Declaration of Rome ICOMOS text
1987 Carta della conservazione e del restauro degli oggetti d'arte e di cultura text (Italian)
1987 Washington Charter ICOMOS text, text
1989 Paris Recommendation XXV UNESCO text
1990 Lausanne Charter ICOMOS / ICAHM text, text
1994 Nara Document UNESCO / ICCROM / ICOMOS text, text
1995 European Recommendation Council of Europe, Committee of Ministers text (Rec(95)3E),

text (Rec(95)9E)

1996 Declaration of San Antonio ICOMOS text
1997 Declaration of Sofia XI ICOMOS or XXIX UNESCO text
1997 Carta de Mar del Plata Mercosul text (Portuguese), text (Portuguese), text (Spanish), text (Spanish)
2000 Cracow Charter text (Italian)
2002 Declaration of Cartagena de Indias, Colômbia Conselho Andino, OAS text
2003 Paris Recommendation XXXII UNESCO text

External lists [edit]

External lists of international cultural heritage documents:

Example of an archaeological discovery and restoration of a mural painting [edit]

See also [edit]

Conservation and restoration of:

References [edit]

  1. ^ "Defintition of a Profession". International Council of Museums - Committee for Conservation. Retrieved 18 August 2012. 
  2. ^ Walston, S. (1978). "The Preservation and Conservation of Aboriginal and Pacific Cultural Material in Australian Museums". ICCM Bulletin 4 (1): 9. 
  3. ^ Pye, E, 2001. Caring for the Past: Issues in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums. London: James and James
  4. ^ Stoner, Joyce Hill. 2005. p. 41. “Changing Approaches in Art Conservation: 1925 to the present” in (Sackler NAS Colloquium) Scientific Examination of Art: Modern Techniques in Conservation and Analysis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  5. ^ "Art Under Wraps" , Harvard Magazine, March–April 2000
  6. ^ Gilberg, Mark. (1987). "Friedrich Rathgen: The Father of Modern Archaeological Conservation". Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 26 (2): 105–120. doi:10.2307/3179459. 
  7. ^ "Brief biography of Professor AP Laurie". 
  8. ^ History. British Museum (2012-06-14). Retrieved on 2012-06-29.
  9. ^ a b Stoner, Joyce Hill. "Changing Approaches in Art Conservation: 1925 to the present". The publication exists in two editions. The earlier one is "Scientific Examination of Art: Modern Techniques on Conservation and Analysis" and was published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2003. The later edition of the publication is "Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia: Scientific Examination of Art: Modern Techniques in Conservation and Analysis". It was published by the National Academies Press in 2005.
  10. ^ Patent# 2,073,802 U.S. "Art of Oil Painting Restoration", March 16, 1937. Retrieved on 2012-06-29.
  11. ^ Museum Environment (2nd Edition), 1986, by Garry Thomson CBE ISBN 978-0-7506-2041-3
  12. ^ AIC – Code of Ethics. Retrieved on 2012-06-29.
  13. ^ Weil, Stephen E. (October 1989). "Too much Art?". ArtNews: 232. ISSN 0004-3273. 
  14. ^ Andrew Oddy and Sara Carroll (eds). 1999. Reversibility – Does it Exist? British Museum Occasional Paper Number 135. London: British Museum.
  15. ^ p. 185. Muñoz-Viñas, Salvador. 2005. Contemporary Theory of Conservation. London: Elsevier/Butterworth Heinemann.
  16. ^ ICOM-CC International Council of Museums Committee for Conservation]
  17. ^ Heritage Health Index. Retrieved on 2012-06-29.
  18. ^ Understanding the Future: Priorities for England’s Museums. Department for Culture, Media and Sport. October 2006
  19. ^ Understanding the Future: Priorities for England’s Museums. The Institute of Conservation.
  20. ^ The Future of Museums: A Failure of Vision. Retrieved on 2012-06-29.
  21. ^ Holden, John. and Samuel Jones. 2008. It's A Material World: Caring for the public realm. London: Demos.
  22. ^ a b AIC – Becoming a Conservator. Retrieved on 2012-06-29.
  23. ^ History of the SPAB. Retrieved on 2012-06-29.
  24. ^ APVA Preservation Virginia. Retrieved on 2012-06-29.
  25. ^ About AIC – Overview. Retrieved on 2012-06-29.

Further reading [edit]

External links [edit]

Scholarly journals
Relation to the public
Conservators in private practice that provide resources
  • Animation Art Conservation discusses the preservation of animation art and has many interviews with animation artists that detail their original intent and frequently how they made their art.
  • Conrad Schmitt Studios has been conserving artwork for buildings of architectural, historic, and religious significance since 1889.
  • EverGreene Architectural Arts, Inc. specializes in conservation and restoration practices globally.
  • Oliver Brothers Fine Art Restoration and Conservation, Boston-New York has been restoring and conserving paintings, works on paper, icons, murals, sculpture, gilded objects, and antique and contemporary picture frames for more than one and one-half centuries . Established in 1850, Oliver Brothers Art Restoration and Art Conservation is the oldest art restoration company in the United States.
  • Anthony Moore Painting Conservation, York, ME Has been in operation in the Northeast for over 20 years, Anthony Moore Painting Conservation moved to its current location in York, ME in 1991. They have conserved and consulted on numerous paintings for museums, auction houses, historical societies, galleries, insurance companies, as well as a long list of private clients.
  • ConservArt, Boca Raton, FL George Schwartz has been active as a conservator in private practice since 1963. Schwartz is a currently a Professional Associate Member -The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works (AIC).