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Archaeological Conservation: Art or Science? Why not both!

February 6th, 2014

Archaeological Conservation: Art or Science? Why not both!

 Alex Garcia-Putnam

Conservation is critical to how both archaeologists and the public interpret the past.  The material culture studied by archaeologists is maintained, preserved and restored by conservators, aiding in our understanding of the people that made or used these objects in the past.  And some of these same objects are displayed in museums and must survive the rigors of a life on display (instead of say, stored in a climate controlled curation room). Conservators must have the know-how to stabilize and maintain artifacts as well as restore them for museum display purposes; in this way conservators must bridge the divide between art and science.  This divide and the work done by conservators somewhere in the middle of it, and leads to a discussion of the motives and ethics of archaeological conservation.

Conservators, tasked with repairing, restoring, maintaining, and protecting artifacts, have to keep in mind who the audience of their work will be, as per their code of ethics presented by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (2013).  As previously mentioned, both archaeologists and the public view and utilize conservators’ work.  Archaeologists need conservation to help expose the original surface of artifacts that may have been deposited in the ground thousands of years ago.  As artifacts are brought out of the ground, they immediately begin to degrade.  Stable environments make for the best preservation, and once artifacts are removed it takes the deft hands of a conservator to make sure that they are maintained in order to gain as much information from them as possible.

The other side to conservation, and probably the one that is thought of most, is the work they do in museums, maintaining artifacts and works of art to go on display.  Conservators can have creative license to retouch, and change these archaeological materials.  Here in lies the issue.  Museums, from a business and aesthetic perspective, want on display objects of beauty that will attract crowds and admiration.  Many artifacts come out of the field, be that excavated from a terrestrial site or salvaged off the ocean floor, in a state of disrepair, not exactly what museum goers want to see behind the glass cases.  It is one of the many jobs of conservators to fix and treat artifacts to prolong their life on display.  They must be allowed some creative license in this process, but where do they draw the line between simply exposing and preserving the artifact and embellishing or changing it from its original form?  Do the alterations made by a conservator take anything away from the original maker of the object? Even if the conservator’s intentions are simply to revitalize and protect the objects, is it not in some way intrinsically altering it?  Conservators combat this dilemma by ensuring that as much of their work as possible is reversible, thus allowing for the original structure to be maintained.  They are also incredibly concerned with using safe treatments, storage practices, and display techniques that allow the artifacts the longest ‘shelf life’ possible.

I do not mean to seem critical of the alterations made by conservators on objects from the human past, but I do believe that it is crucial that extreme care be taken in the decision making process of conservators when altering objects.  It is not the raw dirty artifacts that the public sees, they see the ones cleaned, preserved, and refurbished by conservators.  The point being that the public needs to be careful when viewing these artifacts, they need to understand that this is not how we found these objects; and conservators need to be judicious in the treatments and alterations they make.

Works Sited

“Code of Ethics”, American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (2013). http://www.conservation-us.org/about-us/core-documents/code-of-ethics#.UvKL_v1ATwI.

Ethics and Theory, General Conservation ,