Sunday, February 21, 2010

Conservation “Mistakes” and their Consequences—Barr

From the pesticide-infested relics of the Hopi to the botched Chinese wall paintings of the Fogg Museum, it often seems that in the effort to preserve a historic object, the piece suffers further damage. As with any profession, error and trial are part of conservation. Isabelle Brajer's statement "a conservator who has not blundered in the course of his or her career is one that has not dirtied his or her hands." Mishaps range from misconceptions to logistical faults to poor aesthetic decisions. They incur shame but enlighten others who can learn from the misstep. Technical mistakes such as transferring the Chinese murals in the same manner as Italian frescos or miscalculating dimensions like Brajer are the most understandable errors. It is also easier to forgive earlier restorers who did not undergo the same training or possess the same scientific capabilities. However, Brajer also points out the difficulty in interpreting abstract works. Conservators inherently reflect the values and trends of their times that extend beyond the physical treatment of the materials to the manner they approach the art. We ask what is the role and worth of preservation mistakes. What should be regarded as error? In our society, the brazenness, reckless experimentation, and gross disrespect for the object and its context (particularly cultural) that characterized previous generations would be fundamental sins expressed through the irrevocable damage they frequently inflicted. Nevertheless, are flawed works worthless to hang in a gallery or can they teach us about the attitudes, perceptions, and technical blunders of our predecessors? What lessons can we glean from these failed initiatives, and what does it say about the institutions that hide these pieces from public viewing?

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  1. I agree with Brajer that it is crucial not to hide one's mistakes, because then others would inevitably repeat them. Rather, conservators and museums should openly display and talk about works that have been damaged by poor conservations efforts in the past. This is important from both a historiography perspective and as a way of learning from mistakes. As our perceptions change over time, certain methods that were formerly used are deemed unacceptable, but I think it would be short-sighted to ignore "flawed works." I think it is important for conservators in the future to make sure that any work done is reversible and does not permanently alter the object. That will ensure that even as people's views change of what kind of conservation is acceptable, the object will not be seen as irreparably damaged.

  2. Brajer cites several examples of untrained conservators who were able to work on valued pieces in the past, and we are lucky that today greater attention is devoted to training conservators methods and historic information as it applies to specific pieces. It is important to reveal past mistakes and display the ruined murals rather than hide these tragedies and pretend they did not happen. As Balachandran says of these objects “they become more valuable as records of the acquisition process than as artistic products of their original culture.” It is also important to recognize the types of corruption that Balachandran mentions in reference to western art collectors who took advantage of countries during moments of national weakness and instability. Just as we do not erase a nation’s imperialist history, we should not ignore this history of corruption, but rather use our technology and preserve the remaining context of these works as best as we can, whether or not the artifacts still exist there.

  3. Carambelas: From the readings it is clear that “flawed” objects have value, if even their initial value (i.e. monetary or religious) was lost in the preservation process. As Balachandran points out they are lessons: “cautionary tales of destruction…in the name of preservation” and inspiration to further knowledge in the field (Object Lessons: 18). I would add to this list the value of documentation; such objects are records of history, particularly the development of archaeology and conservation, both of which—particularly the former—are stories of international relations. For us to understand the present it is necessary to acknowledge and study the past through these objects. For this reason I feel collecting institutions have an obligation to disclose an object’s conservation history. Institutions that fail to do so, or try to hide flawed objects, break the public trust on which they are founded.

  4. Novik: Brajer says that "the concept of reversibility is often a utopian aspiration." Although it would be nice to be able to reverse any changes one makes to an object, it cannot always be true. Despite any new technologies or methods conservators employ, and despite any current rationality towards reversibility, conservators will continue to make mistakes just as their predecessors did. For this reason it is important to display and publicize the errors conservators make. Although their is no way of ensuring an error-proof profession, the more information accessible the better.

  5. Cummings:
    I agree with Emily that documentation is extremely important in this field. I can imagine that dealing with older pieces with little or no documentation is extremely hard to handle. I see the conservator like a doctor who, before making any decision regarding an operation, should consult a patient’s history to prevent further complications. I really liked Brajer’s article because it really brought home the idea that this field is and has been replete with mistakes since its establishment. Mankind’s abhorrence of being wrong has prevented many from taking on projects and even admitting to their own mistakes, but this article made me think in the world of conservation, what really is a mistake? Since this field is ever changing, choices that were made in the past weren’t always considered mistakes until newer, more advanced ways to conserve art were discovered. This brought me to Brajer’s quote, “How many conservators nowadays have resorted to the use of a method or material that they had no previous experience with, but were doing so because others had?” Even though we are much more knowledgeable and much more careful with our decisions, I think remembering the mistakes of the past and accepting the idea that the future may hold better ways to conserve art is more than important. Our technology now is the best it’s ever been, but I feel strongly that better technology is yet to come. Since conservation tries to fight Father Time, waiting for better technology isn’t always a possibility. Instead, we must rely on the technology we have now and hope that the conservator has not only learned from others’ mistakes, but also be willing to admit their own to help conservation in the future.

  6. Martinek:

    I definitely agree – as Brajer points out, “the role documentation plays in our profession cannot be overly emphasized.” While being able to reverse a mistake in any case would be ideal, it is clearly not the case for many works of art and in these instances not only documentation but also communication preserves the value of the artifact.

    As a few people have already mentioned, preservation techniques are often not mistakes when they are made, but rather fall into that category later on as new developments are made. It is extremely important to make a distinction between these types of “mistakes” and true blunders because, as Brajer suggests, “assessing the work of our predecessors is usually the stimulus ushering in new approaches.” What was a blunder when it was first done will always be a blunder, but an action whose value changes over time can often lead us to greater preservation techniques later on (if we have enough information documented to help us understand how something came to be a mistake!).

    Therefore, mistakes can certainly provide value if supported with enough information. It is also important not to define these mistakes just as errors, but to keep an open mind about the motivating factors behind a conservator’s decisions; these factors are what lead “to the formations of convictions regarding the correct way to solve problems” (Brajer), and it is these convictions that provide us such valuable insight into how to approach future problems.

  7. Amy Hughes: I appreciate the didactic moments Isabelle Brajer presents in her piece "Taking the Wrong Path" because she tries to offer up these past mistakes with a silver lining and without placing blame (or shame) on the conservators who made them. Balachandran makes the same point with regards to the art historian, Langdon Warner. Though no conservator today would come to the same decision that Warner did in Dunhuang in 1924, he was still not acting out of gross disrespect for the paintings. He was just sadly misguided! The future of this profession owes a lot to the "'Oops' moments in conservation" so it is a good idea to facilitate openness and communication when it comes to similar failures.

    Kelly, it does seem like being a conservator is a lot like being an art doctor. It really puts the short history of this profession into perspective when you think of all the ethical controversies that have gone on in the field of medicine!

  8. Keelin is exactly right in expressing the need to distinguish between the ‘mistakes’ that were predominantly made in the past, due to different tastes, methods and definitions of what was acceptable, and those that happen as a result of human errors and blunders. The crucial difference here has to do with the intention of the conservator. Treatments which go to plan but are subsequently judged but others to have been insufficient in some way are inherently quite different from errors which are the result of something unexpected and unintended occurring in the course of a treatment.

    Conservators can, of course, learn a great deal from both. Yet what we learn and the way in which we do so will differ, which is why the distinction is so crucial. Looking at the injudicious treatments of the past will predominantly inform future conservation standards and direct future development of new techniques a quite overall way. In my experience the conservation profession has become reasonably adept at doing this. This is, I feel, largely because there is usually a significant temporal distance between those who carried out work and those who are in a position to criticise it. The conservator in question would usually be dead and/or unknown and the focus would be on the treatment itself rather than the person who had carried it out. In this sense it is usually relatively easy to discuss the issue in a way that does not constitute an immediate professional threat either to oneself of to another practicing conservator.

    By contrast it is much harder to discuss unintentional errors in a way that is professionally ‘safe’ for those involved, and it is for this reason that I feel more focus should be given to conservation errors and making reporting possible. Often the error would need to be reported directly by the person responsible and this would normally have to happen quite soon after the mistake had taken place. This leaves the conservator quite open to being labelled ‘careless’ or ‘incompetent’ and hence admissions of this nature are rarely made. Yet such accounts are critical in providing specific information about treatments and situations that may be especially vulnerable to mistakes. Brajer’s account of the transferred painting that wouldn’t fit through the door is a good example since I have heard (more informally) of precisely the same thing happening to another conservator elsewhere. What this helps illustrate is that all people have common psychological limitations, which means that very different people are often responsible for the same errors. Blame, therefore, is not only unhelpful, but also unrealistic. Yet since both error making and blame are universal human characteristics we can usefully look to other professions in order to determine how best to resolve the conflict between them.

  9. Isabelle Brajer: My experience after working on wall painting conservation projects in medieval churches for 25 years is that the conservation profession nowadays cultivates an atmosphere of perfectionism that is often unrealistic and can be paralyzing for implementation of treatments. I have seen cases where conservators, guarding for possible mistakes, spend an immense amount of time monitoring and diagnosing, and deplete the budget before any interventive treatment can even take place. I know of at least two cases where the paintings are now almost beyond saving because a preparatory project was followed by a longer period of inactivity due to budget problems, after which a new bout of activity commence with a new series of diagnostic testing. This is a real dilemma because we now have at our recourse a much wider ‘palette’ of scientific investigative methods than a few decades ago, and it would be foolish not to make use of these tools. But we must make wise decisions for optimal use of the limited amount of funds available for the preservation of cultural heritage. I have no answer to this dilemma. It poses a further question: who decides what the optimal use of funds and optimal result of a conservation treatment is? The conservator in charge of the project, the art historian based in a distant cultural institution, or the client (in my case, usually the church community)? I am currently in the process of an extremely painstaking removal of limewash on some Gothic wall paintings in Sanderum Church in Denmark. The work is going slower than I had estimated, and I am very aware of the rate at which the budget is being depleted. I have therefore made a decision to limit the pigment analysis of the newly uncovered paintings to a minimum, as this particular technical knowledge will not affect the continuation of the treatment, and also free funding for making a more thorough examination and photographic documentation in UV light, by means of which we can see parts of the painting that are now totally faded and no longer visible to the naked eye. Now, ideally, it would be great to take samples of all the surfaces emitting fluorescence in UV light and identify the pigment or binding medium, but if I do this, I risk not having enough funds to complete the project. Is this a mistake or poor decision on my part? Time will tell. The members of the church community (who raised the funds for the conservation project) are mostly interested in getting some nice paintings they can admire and appreciate for their interesting iconographic content. If they directed the distribution of funding in the various operations involved in the project, my experience says they would put the bulk on aesthetic treatments.

    Conservation practice is full of daily unforeseen complications where conservators must make a decision. Many times, the problems that need solving seem to be far removed from theoretical ideology. For the first five years of my career I experienced the process of running a complex conservation project akin to jumping into deep water for the first time in my life and starting to swim (it felt like this every time). I have made mistakes and learned from them. Now, I feel like a fish in a pond on my scaffolding, but I still can make a mistake or an error of judgment. Our profession would greatly benefit from a more open attitude about making mistakes. Other professions, such as the medical profession, have. The cultivation of the attitude in the conservation profession that only the perfect result is acceptable is unrealistic and stifling development.