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How visible should conservation treatments be?

February 12th, 2014

How visible should conservation treatments be?

 Lawrence Houston

Retaining and producing documentation of conservation treatments is considered a fairly recent development when it comes to historical and artistic works.  The prior philosophy of repairs was often to make them so invisible that the original and the repair could not be told apart.  It was thought that the slightest hint of visible treatment would ruin the value of an object and many objects were ill-treated in order to attain this visual effect.  When conservators worked together to develop treatment ethics, one of the aspects of ethical repair that was examined closely was how treatments should be incorporated into the object as a whole.  How can damage repair be undertaken in a manner that neither detracts from the perception of an object, nor attempts to pass itself off as authentic?

One guidepost that conservators set was the ‘six foot/six inch rule.’  Basically put, a repair should be incorporated into the object so that from 6 feet away, the repair blends seamlessly with the object.  The object and its aesthetic experience should be at the forefront of the observer’s attention.  Treatments should not detract from the appreciation of an object.  However, treatments should not be so invisible that the object becomes something that it is not.  Original detail and the work of time and craft should be distinguished readily from the restoration and stabilization work done to care for an object.  Hence the six inch rule, which states that treatments should be apparent on close examination.

Why make the treatments visible at all?  Conservators have the responsibility of ensuring that an object is allowed to speak for itself.  Hiding the treatments entirely creates a false appearance that can mislead or even create forgeries of authentic craft.  Those who access the objects treated have the right to know which parts of an object are original. Likewise, conservators have the obligation to show what is interpolation or which portions are not supported by authorial intent and are merely an assist to stabilization.  Conservators have developed techniques like tratteggio [Italian for sketching] and rigatini [striping] for adding paint to compensate for loss.  Other times, the ‘reading side’ of an object will not show work that is readily visible from the back.  When treatment documentation is lacking or absent, it is often these visual clues that are an important help to guide researchers and conservators in their approach to an object.

Figure 1

Page from a copy of Homer’s Iliad. 1722. 

Aqueous treatment was being contemplated to fix the staining of the page.  Repairs are almost invisible.

Figure 2

Note the undocumented repairs that are easily visible on close inspection.  Should aqueous treatment be attempted with this object, these historical repairs can be accounted for by the conservator and loss of the information can be prevented. These visible repairs are also of note to researchers.  In this case, the repairs indicate a printing error that was caught and likely corrected early in the object’s life. (Raking and transmitted light used in the photos provided to visually highlight the repairs).

Figure 3

Current AIC guidelines require conservators to “not falsely modify the known aesthetic, conceptual, and physical characteristics of the cultural property.”  As conservators we need to ensure that repairs stay in the background and do not drown out the voice of the object.  But we also need to avoid the vanity of creating a truly invisible repair and work to hone our craft in a way that allows the object to speak for itself.

 

Bibliography

AIC Code of Ethics.  http://www.nps.gov/training/tel/Guides/HPS1022_AIC_Code_of_Ethics.pdf.  January 21, 2014.

Applebaum, Barbara. Conservation Treatment Methodology. Lexington, ky 2010

Capel, Chris. Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method, and Decision Making. Routledge. ny, ny. 2000

Phillips, David. Exhibiting Authenticity. St Martin’s Press. NY, NY. 1997

Schweidler, Max.  The Restoration of Engravings, Drawings, Books, and Other Works on Paper.  Ed. Roy

Perkinson.  Getty Conservation Institute. Los Angeles. 2006.

Photo credit: Lawrence Houston.  Images from ΟΜΗΡΟΥ ΙΛΙΑΣ. Homeri Ilias: id est, de rebus ad Trojam gestis. Printer J. R. Prostant. 1722.

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