You hear the term ‘conservation’ used often when we talk about cultural heritage and its preservation, but what exactly does that mean? As an art conservator and restorer, I’ve heard just about everything.
“Doesn’t conservation have something to do with the environment?”
“You just repaint things then, right?”
“So, you fix paintings and stuff?”
And my favorite: “What exactly do you do?”
Well fortunately for you, that is what I’m going to do today. I’m going to provide you with a crash course in Art Conservation 101 and give you a better idea of what exactly it is that we do.
First, let’s define what art conservation and restoration actually is.
When we talk about art conservation and restoration, we mean the treatment, repair, and long-term conservation of all matter of media and materials due to wilful damage, neglect, or the inevitable aging and decay caused by the passage of time. This is such a vast and wide discipline that the practice of conservation is broken down into different categories.
For example, I have personally been trained in-depth on the conservation and restoration of canvas paintings, wall paintings, stone, stucco, and architectural surfaces, with minor training for archaeological objects, paper, and wooden panel paintings. This does not include other areas of conservation like furniture, glassware, metalware, architecture (structural), textile, photography, ceramics, or digital media. If it’s still unclear, I quite like this definition from the Art Conservators Alliance to help explain.
So, you see, it isn’t quite as straightforward, as simply ‘fixing paintings.’
We also have to know a lot of science.
Yes, art and science. You read that right. Each conservator/restorer is trained in specific scientific and diagnostic practices that are applicable to all types of materials, as well as specific chemical treatments that are relevant to their area of expertise. It takes rigorous study, and a great deal of experience working in-situ, and often individuals choose to specialize specifically in conservation science.
In fact, not only do we have to become a chemist, but often times we also need to know aspects of art history, anthropology, geology, biology, physics, sociology, and business. You could maybe even call an art conservator a ‘jack-of-all-trades.’
We can’t just ‘fix’ it either.
It’s also not as simple as gluing things back together. One of the first things you learn as a conservator is to respect the integrity of the original by always practicing minimal intervention. What does that mean? It means that conservation of the original often takes precedence to aesthetic appearance. It is fundamental to understand that there is a difference between conservation, restoration, and renovation.
Depending on where you practice, there is usually a set of standards and guidelines – a code of ethics – that you must abide by. For example in North America, the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) sets the standards of practice for conservators and restorers working in this region of the world, which operate similarly to global standards set out by organizations like the International Council of Museums (ICOM). Of course there are some variations in practice due to preference and technique, but the overall goal is to keep a fundamental continuity among professionals internationally.
Why is it important to understand these aspects of art conservation?
By now you’ve probably realized that art conservation and restoration is a lengthy, delicate, and sometimes complicated endeavor. We have to walk a thin line of preserving cultural property for future generations, and at the same time uphold the original integrity and historical legacy of its past. We have to choose materials that are compatible and won’t cause future damage, as well as maintain the environment and space in which the heritage is found.
This type of work takes time, passion, great dedication to training and craft, as well as substantial monetary resources that aren’t always there (which, in my opinion, is due largely to under estimating the true value of cultural heritage for local economies and societies – but that’s a discussion for another day). Platforms like LoveItaly have the power to change that, and you can be a part of that legacy too, by doing what you can and supporting these important projects.
If you’re interested in learning more in-depth information about the field of art conservation and restoration, you might check out these resources below (I’m pretty sure you’ll fall in love with it too):
Sarah Braun is a heritage preservation and socioeconomic development specialist, avid writer, and owner of A Hopeful Wander – a travel and heritage advocacy blog. Her current goals are focused on consultation, growth, and development of socially responsible travel and tourism in the private sector, as well as advocating for world heritage across the globe.