Post by Vijayalakshmi “Viji” Kalyanaraman and Henderson
Edited by Alison Whyte
We can add years to our treasured possessions’ lives by using simple techniques such as avoiding direct sunlight and extreme changes in humidity, but how about the priceless works of art found in museums? This is the focus of the professional art conservator.
Art conservation is the profession dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage. Conservators study and preserve art and artifacts using various analytical procedures to understand the age and composition of an object as well as any physical changes that might have occurred over time. They use methods and treatments that stabilize (slow the process of degradation) an object so it can be preserved for a longer time.
Integral to the profession of art conservation is thorough record keeping and documentation. The condition of the object, before and after conservation treatment, is recorded in both photographic and written formats and any treatment undertaken is fully described. Conservators also advise on the proper storage and display parameters for the objects in their care so as to prevent damage and minimize the need for interventive treatments.
Art conservation is perhaps not as well known compared to other fields like medicine or archaeology. This may be due in part to the fact that high schools and universities don’t place as much emphasis on its practice.
Alison Whyte is an art conservator for the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago, where she specializes in the preservation of archaeological material from the ancient Near East.
MASI sat down with Alison to understand why art conservation is such an important field, and what state-of-the-art tools she is using to help the Oriental Institute Museum study and preserve material culture.
Alison’s interest in ancient art was sparked by a visit to “The Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibit with her parents over 30 years ago. In high school, she became interested in both archaeology and forensics. After majoring in anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Alison obtained a Masters in Ancient Studies from the University of Toronto and then finally a Masters of Art Conservation from Queens University (Canada).
“I started out my career path in archaeology but then I realized that I was more interested in the hands-on approach of a laboratory setting. I was much happier taking care of the objects (art conservation) than searching for them (archaeology). I had these early interests in art history, archaeology and forensic science. Then I found out about art conservation and it seemed like the perfect combination of these interests,” Alison said.
Blending disciplines such as art history, archaeology and chemistry, art conservation also closely follows advancements in the medical and forensics fields. Combined, these specialties help art conservators identify the chemical composition and describe the structure of an object. This information helps the art conservator to make decisions regarding the appropriate course of action in preserving the artifact.
Two important elements in art conservation are (1) creating and maintaining a suitable display or storage environment for the object, and (2) arresting decay in the object.
In the former, great care is taken to ensure that the optimal temperature and relative humidity are maintained for the specific material. Exposure to light and pollutants are also minimized. Alison considers preventing damage and decay of the artifacts as one of the biggest challenges that conservators face, especially since different materials may require different environmental conditions.
In the latter, treatments sometimes include “undoing” restoration procedures carried out at an earlier period when there was little understanding of what materials should be used to conserve an object. For example, some adhesives used in the past to reconstruct artifacts do not age well and can, in fact, end up causing damage. Also, acid treatments used in the past on ancient metal objects stripped their corrosion layers in an effort to make them look new. Today we understand that some corrosion layers can actually protect the metal underneath and may also contain important information about the past.
Conservators apply several laboratory techniques — from visual inspection to X-rays to scanning electron microscopy — to understand the nature of materials in detail.
“We first observe the object by visual inspection, then under the microscope for finer details,” says Alison. “Corrosion layers growing on the surface of an archaeological metal object can replace and take the shape of organic material in the vicinity. An example might be a leather scabbard buried in contact with an iron blade. The leather may completely degrade until there is nothing left and yet be ‘recorded’ so to speak in the morphology of the corrosion layers growing on the iron blade. This kind of thing is often only visible under the microscope.”
These analytical processes can also yield much information about how an object was made, what it may have been used for, and even what kinds of pigments were used to decorate its surfaces.
There are challenges posed in each step of the conservation process, depending on the type of material being studied. But for Alison, this is where conservation gets exciting.
“I like the fact that every object is different and each problem creates a new challenge. One has to be creative sometimes in the approach and it is rewarding when a particular method of conservation is successful. Also, the study of ancient technology is fascinating!”
To find out more about art conservation, check out the American Institute for Conservation‘s website.