I’m sure that although many in the arts sector will have heard of and even worked with conservators there may still be a little confusion regarding the relevance of a conservator writing for an arts blog.
I believe conservators and artists hold a common interest in materials, the secrets they hold and the stories they can tell.
A great many specialisms exist within conservation rooted in the materials from which items are produced, manufactured or formed: conservators of paintings, paper, stone, ceramic, metal, natural history, photography and textiles to name but a few.
Each of these specialisms shares a set of common standards, principles and a solid scientific knowledge base that may not only be of benefit, but also of creative interest to artists.
Inherent to conservation is an understanding of materials, the processes of manufacture and also of deterioration and decay.
The deterioration of materials can greatly impact upon the perception of items or works of art. An excellent example is the deterioration of pigments used in paintings. The effects of light and humidity upon pigments can cause them to fade or alter. Conservators from the National Gallery have documented examples of pallid cheeks in portraits where the pink pigment has faded; perhaps causing the viewer to perceive sickness or unhappiness in the demeanour of the subject that was not intended. Green foliage has been known to turn blue over time, due to the fading of some yellow pigments dramatically altering the balance of still life works.
In addition experimentation by artists although often successful and influential can be disastrous leading to the rapid deterioration of their works due to combinations of unsuitable mixes of binding mediums, innovative substrates and the use of even edible media such as chocolate. It is thought by some that the enthusiastic experimentation of Leonardo Da Vinci may account in part for his relatively small collection of surviving works.
Sometimes this deterioration, the decay of the work, may be deliberate as in the case of Andy Goldsworthy’s exhibit Time where each of the pieces exhibited broke down over the course of the display altering daily. The process of decay is central to their impact and meaning.
Although you may think conservators would shudder at the thought of such ephemeral creations, many in the sector take a pragmatic approach to such works. They choose to document the artists’ intent and map the changing condition of the works for posterity rather than passing judgment or changing the nature of the work in order to preserve the physical.
The conservators’ knowledge of the effects of light, temperature and humidity on different materials and media and of the complex chemistry of the items we produce could be of value to the arts community from both a creative and preservative standpoint.
Conservators can provide simple practical advice on appropriate environments (light, heat and humidity), materials and techniques for display and storage ensuring the longevity of art pieces.
In our next scheduled collaboration with the arts blog the conservators of Conservation and Museum Advisory Service hope to provide an insight into the care of works of art on paper through a case study: the conservation of two fine art prints by our paper conservator Sarah Volter.
To find your local conservator a great resource is the Conservator Register www.conservationregister.com, where you can search not only by location, but also by specialism.
Beth Baker, ACR, Senior Conservator, Conservation and Museum Advisory Service, Wiltshire Council. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Beth Baker initially studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art continuing to complete an MSc in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums at UCL. Previously employed by both the Wallace Collection and the Science Museum in London Beth moved to Wiltshire Council Conservation and Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) in 2009. Beth achieved accredited status, awarded by ICON the Institute of Conservation, in 2012.
As Senior Conservator at CMAS, Beth coordinates the Conservation Services. Focusing on long term collections sustainability she works with a broad range of clients from across the heritage sector providing advice, training, preventive and remedial conservation services. Beth’s areas of specialism and particular interest are archaeology and social history, in particular hazardous materials in objects.