FAQ and Explainer: About Art Conservation
What is Art Conservation & Heritage Science?
What physical legacies of our culture do we want to pass on to the future? How can we prolong the lifespan of a cherished object? How do we provide not just access to cultural heritage, but also for its ongoing conservation, interpretation, research, maintenance, and management? What tangible or intangible elements of culture should we work to sustain and why? The preservation of art blends a compelling range of issues and ideas with the need for critical thinking and decision-making skills. What is our niche? Applied science, history, and policy for the preservation of cultural heritage.
What do we do with permanence
in a change-driven world?
Our global cultural heritage faces multiple challenges, including climate disruption, rapid changes in our economies, technologies, and cultures, increasing inequality and homogenization, environmental pollution, overtourism, vandalism arising from alienation and extremism, deferred maintenance, fires, floods, and natural geologic hazards, as well as economic crises, all of which result in complex impacts to our sense of place, our environment, our most valued material culture, and our identity.
While at risk, the usefulness and importance of cultural heritage and preservation as levers and opportunities for learning, community building, sustainable development goals, cultural tourism, promoting justice and reconciliation, and even resisting genocide continue to grow.
What is Art Conservation?
Art conservation deals with the history, documentation, evaluation, significance, protection, stability, and future of our inheritance of significant art collections, architecture, archives, and archaeology. Art conservation is about managing change, not stopping it.
Art conservation is also about extending the lifespan of cultural heritage through preventive and active interventions. Remedial conservation works to stabilize works that have changed. Preventive conservation works to minimize future damage through regular maintenance and collections care. As with human health, prevention is cheaper and more effective than remediation and repair.
What is Heritage Science?
In brief, heritage science (also known as conservation science) is about using science and technology to investigate and protect our art collections, architecture, archives, and archaeology.
Each of us has experienced something significant in our lives that others should be able to experience in the future. Much of our cultural heritage is lost simply through inertia, time, and a lack of good information and resources.
What is one thing you would like to still be around in 100 years? What experience, place, art, culture, activity, or thing do you love? There is a great quote from Brian Eno: “Love will show us what to save, and science will show us how.” That makes sense. However, we purposefully memorialize some places–sometimes called difficult heritage– to avoid repeating past mistakes, tackle trauma, and affirm public remembering.
Why is cultural heritage significant?
Some art can induce awe, and that has universal value. UNESCO defines Outstanding Universal Value as a cultural property that is so significant that it transcends national borders and is vital to all generations of humanity.
What are some of the ways we value cultural heritage? Each can be considered a lens through which we view the past.
- Economic or market value, both direct and indirect, such as cultural tourism
- Historic value
- Informational or scientific value (often important for archaeological research)
- Aesthetic value
- Cultural or identity value (personal, group identity, nationalism)
- Use value (a working clock)
- Ritual value
- Age value
- Personal or family value
- Spiritual or religious value
- Rarity value
- Status value
Art conservation and heritage science provide us a chance to cheat time, investigate art, and, in a modest way, help shape the future of culture.
Why do Art Conservation & Heritage Science touch so many disciplines?
Art conservation applies science & art, technology & history, policy & craft, ethics & culture to understand and preserve what we want future generations to experience. As domains of activity, art conservation & heritage science can be considered under the larger umbrella of cultural sustainability, which is the cultural analog of environmental sustainability. Every field of human endeavor builds on what came before; thus, each of us has a fundamental interest in preserving some part of that inheritance.
What do art conservators, heritage scientists, and preservationists of all stripes work on?
Many conservation professionals work on significant art collections, architecture, archives, and archaeology. Others safeguard historic cities, cultural landscapes, and intangible heritage, encompassing cuisine, dance, oral traditions, languages, and digital heritage.
What do art conservators, heritage scientists, and preservationists do?
Conservation professionals are practitioners, managers, researchers, educators, and advocates. An art conservator’s activities often include preventive conservation, examination and assessment, documentation, research, treatment, maintenance, training, and dissemination. Conservators work to stabilize artifacts using reversible interventions, compatible materials, and preventive strategies.
You can think of some art conservators as brain surgeons with specialized skills and others as public health doctors, analogous to preventive conservation. Some conservation scientists are like medical researchers and diagnosticians, investigating problems and inventing new tools and treatments to assist front-line care providers.
How are conservation professionals trained?
Art Conservation is grounded in art, history, and science. It is inherently interdisciplinary, with multiple modes of inquiry, ranging from ethics to engineering, and emergency triage interventions to research projects spanning decades. Students often take courses in studio art, art history, chemistry, and archaeology, as well as courses in art conservation. Internships and hands-on experience are essential. Graduate-level training can prepare conservation professionals to focus on a particular area, whether it’s objects conservation, preventive conservation, architectural conservation, conservation science, historic city and archaeological site management, or landscape preservation. An array of hands-on training programs, short courses, internships, and fellowships are available for many different types of materials, such as ethnographic and archaeological objects, photographs and paper, wall paintings, and rock art, to name just a few.
What is the future of art conservation?
If we can speculate a bit, there are likely jobs that do not yet exist but that will leverage the skills that many people in the field of cultural heritage have: to consult with diverse stakeholders, to assess, to document, and to facilitate resilience and tough choices. How can the best of our material culture be transplanted, preserved in place, or documented and let go, in the face of climate migration and increasingly frequent extreme events, such as hurricanes, fires, floods, and economic disruption? Which of our current World Heritage cities will be abandoned by our descendants? How many new cities will be created, and what cultural traditions will they embody?
What questions about art conservation should we be thinking about?
Broadly speaking, art conservation is about managing change. It encompasses diverse values and stakeholders, ethical conundrums and difficult tradeoffs, inertia and innovation, great wealth and threadbare institutions, as well as a series of complex and challenging questions that deserve our attention:
- Who gets to decide how we process our material cultural inheritance and create a legacy for future generations?
- How do we decide what to preserve and what to let go of?
- How do we manage change in a way that is practical and fair to future generations?
- What are we not preserving today that we may regret tomorrow?
- How do we encourage maintenance, cultural resilience, and long-term thinking in a culture driven by change?
Art Conservation is also about melding art & science, technology & craft, policy & practice, ethics & economics:
- How do we sustain the favorite things we leave for future generations?
- And how do we manage difficult heritage, such as sites and museums that preserve and help us learn the history of slavery and genocide?
What is the scope of efforts to prevent damage to cultural heritage?
The scope can be considerable, ranging from efforts to understand nanoscale deterioration mechanisms and the safekeeping of a single object, to issues of sustainability and the management of world heritage cities:
- Legislation to protect individual sculptures, museums, sites, and monuments
- Pollution control
- Traffic management
- Control of groundwater
- Visitor management
- Disaster planning
- Collections Care/Preventive Conservation
- Cultural resilience and sustainability
Why are different terms used for the same topic in the field of cultural heritage preservation?
The use of different terms for the same subject in the field of cultural heritage can be confusing and often relates to variations in language and geography. The field of art conservation is sometimes still referred to as art restoration in some parts of the world. A process of restoration generally intends to bring historic objects back to their original appearance, while art conservation generally prioritizes stabilizing the existing fabric, performing thorough documentation, and the use of reversible treatments.
The application of science and technology to cultural heritage preservation is called heritage science in the UK and Europe, conservation science or museum science in the USA (often confused with conservation biology), archaeometry or archaeological science among archaeologists, and art forensics in some legal circles.
The field of Historic Preservation (of architecture) in the USA is better known as Built Heritage Preservation or Built Heritage Conservation in the UK.
The term preservation technology is often used in historic preservation. It is something of a catch-all phrase for the application of technology and engineering used to help survey and solve problems for buildings, sites, and artifacts. See NCPTT and APTI.org
Internationally, the phrase “conservation and protection of cultural heritage” is often used, and Wikipedia has sections on “Conservation and restoration of cultural property” and “Cultural heritage management.”
Given the complex context for the field of art conservation, what are some of the more common interdisciplinary excursions to related fields?
Why are Art Conservation and Heritage Science becoming increasingly popular?
The popularity of art conservation and heritage science appears to be part of a larger trend of interest in applied, interdisciplinary fields that have a hands-on component and provide opportunities for meaningful work and an emotional connection. The various Environmental Studies and Environmental Analysis majors at the undergraduate level are similar in this respect. As our culture becomes increasingly dependent on science and technology, there seems to be a corresponding desire to investigate and connect with art and culture.
From novels, films, and viral videos to one of the longest-running TV shows, our popular culture has also recognized the appeal of investigating and preserving elements of our cultural inheritance. Art conservation is unusual in that it combines the arts and the sciences in the context of the environment, globalization, and sustainability. Art conservation courses also address some of the millennial-scale challenges that future generations are facing:
- How do we save historic cities from coastal flooding?
- How do we manage tourism and stop looting at World Heritage sites?
- What challenges do we face in preserving modern and contemporary art?
- How can we use science and technology to understand and preserve the best of our art collections, archives, architecture, and archaeology?
Undergraduate art conservation and heritage science courses can help prepare students to get into highly selective graduate programs. In addition, they can introduce them to leading art conservators, conservation architects, and conservation scientists, who can help them decide on their primary area of interest, such as research, management, or hands-on conservation. Hands-on practitioners are typically art conservators, archaeological conservators, architectural conservators, or collections care experts. Someone interested in management and policy may work in cultural resource management, world heritage management, or managing large-scale collections and archives. A researcher will often work in conservation science, archaeometry, archival science, heritage science, provenance research, and technical art history.
Fundamentally, learning about art conservation and cultural heritage preservation makes the inside of your head a more interesting place to spend the rest of your life (to paraphrase Mary Patterson McPherson of Bryn Mawr College). It gives you a vocabulary to talk about values, significance, and change, what we inherit, and what we leave behind as a culture. Lastly, it provides insights into how science and technology are changing how we investigate and preserve our art collections, archives, archaeology, and architecture. It represents a chance to apply lessons from art and science, history and policy to shape our culture.
We all stand on the shoulders of others. First and foremost, I would like to thank all of my students, interns, and postdocs who have taught me so much and inspired much of my work. I am grateful for having had generous and thoughtful mentors throughout my career, especially at Bryn Mawr College (Maria Luisa "Weecha" Crawford, W. Bruce Saunders) and at UC Davis (Karen F. Margolis-Broido, Philippe Claeys, Stanley V. Margolis, Jeffrey F. Mount, Eldridge Moores, Peter Schiffman). Many thanks to my colleagues at the Getty, at the Claremont Colleges, and worldwide for the knowledge, wisdom, and opportunities they have shared. Special thanks to Mary MacNaughton, Nancy Macko, Mary Hatcher-Skeers, Anna Wenzel, Julia Lum, and Kirk Delman, who have supported the first art conservation major at a small liberal arts college. A special acknowledgment to my research partners and mentors Norman Herz, Lorenzo Lazzarini, Veronique Verges-Belmin, George Scherer, Clifford A. Price, John Fidler, Heather A. Viles, and Leo Pel for sharing their expertise, insights, and enthusiasm. Undoubtedly, this list is incomplete – however, you know who you are and the impact you have had.
I have created the above Art Conservation FAQ / Explainer based on many discussions, and it is intended as an informal introduction for new students and the interested public. It is not a publication. Please send comments and questions, omissions, and corrections to Eric @ ConservationSciences.com