THE POSITION OF THE CONSERVATOR IN THE LAST QUARTER OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Caroline K. Keck
ON SEPTEMBER 18, 1978, at the Oxford meetings of IIC, I delivered an oral statement evaluating the position of the art conservator in the last quarter of the twentieth century. My husband, Sheldon Keck, in his capacity as IIC President, introduced me to the audience. It was an honor for us to share a platform commemorating Dr. Edward Waldo Forbes. We met in the first course either of us ever took in the subject of art conservation. The course was listed in the Harvard curriculum as Fine Arts 15B, it was held at the Fogg Museum, described as “Methods and Processes of Painting,” George Stout was teaching assistant, and the instructor was Dr. Forbes.
By tradition, supposedly, the Forbes Prize lecture must be delivered without benefit of notes. It was. I did not memorize what I said. The subject was of my own choice and I spoke from convictions flavored, as usual, by my strong opinions. I explained in advance, as I shall now, that these opinions, however prejudiced, are derived from long experience. My husband and I have spent our lives in the activities of art conservation. For some thirty years we worked, severally and together, in and out of museum laboratories. We have known, worked for, worked with many of the great figures of our field. For the last dozen years or so we have concentrated on efforts to teach. Although we continue a limited private practice in painting conservation, our current occupation is in academia. We are both professors at the Cooperstown Graduate Program in art conservation training.
Statements expressed in black and white are seldom as effective an encouragement toward a change of habits as vocal pyrotechnics. Certain adjustments are requisite. I do hope, however, that my criticisms will be accepted by the reader in the same spirit they were at Oxford, and that I may anticipate as thoughtful a response.
Conservation of historic and artistic works has come a long way in the twentieth century. Membership of our international and national organizations has mushroomed. It has grown so fast and so large that we face difficulties in accommodating all those who wish to attend meetings. I would hazard that almost every member of our international institute for conservation is also a member of one or more offshoot organizations. These amoebic multiplications are surprising since we are such a tiny segment of any total population. However, we are not unknown. We do publish our data hither and yon and in our own publications. We may boast housing spaces specifically designed for our use: laboratories, plain and fancy. Nor are we unequipped: we have instrumentation, simple and sophisticated. There are those among us who are dedicated to scientific research, as well as those who practice remedial operations. And, we have training programs, formal and informal.
Yet, with all of this in the seventy-ninth year of this century, we present no authoritative image. Arbitrarily I have taken the term conservator to describe us, since it is in the title of our organization. Any similar word would have the same connotations in what I have to say. Our occupation, art conservation, is seldom listed on any sheet of vocational activities. When you read some of the motley lot tabulated, it makes you grit your teeth that “conservator” cannot make the roster. We are in limbo. Bankers are reluctant to consider us responsible borrowers because they have no inkling as to what we do. We cannot, at this point, become licensed practitioners like our brothers and sisters in medicine, dentistry, chiropractice or the law. The degree awarded those of us who enter the field from academic disciplines is not equal in status with that bestowed on our kindred trainees in art history, history or archaeology. In the United States unincorporated practitioners of conservation may not take advantage of the professional forms issued by the Internal Revenue Service, but are compelled to pay taxes as imposed on businesses. We lack appropriate labeling, we lack appropriate listing. We are society's barely acknowledged stepchildren. And, with the exception of a miniscule few, we remain a group insufficiently respected, largely misunderstood, and woefully underpaid.
In my opinion, the lion's share of blame falls on our own shoulders. What is this unlabeled and unlisted image of a conservator? How have we colored it? It seems to be a creature none of us has outlined too clearly. Is it a blend of inherited savoir faire and acquired scientific skills, a combination of lessons learned from tradition and from technology? All evidence points to scientific know-how as a definite portion of our abilities. This assumption is confirmed by our behavior as a group. Although the number of scientists we include is very, very small, no regional, no national or international conference is scheduled without a goodly agenda of scientific papers. The same holds true of our publications. I find the emphasis disproportionate to the fact. It is a pretense although it should not be. Until we look truth in the face, and resolve a dichotomy we have chosen to ignore, we may not lay claim to professional authority.
If we believe our image combines science with practice the prevailing relationship between these differentials is far from salutary. The two ways in which this is commonly handled are both bad. One is more distasteful than the other. The worst is in the type of phony establishment where tongue-in-cheek exhibition of sophisticated instrumentation, either unused or unusable, ostensibly guarantees an up to the minute competence of performance. In the other the instrumentation is for real, usable and used by a competent staff, intentionally separated; scientists and practitioners are forbidden to waste each other's time. In the first, the symbols of science are fictitious but present for public import; in the second, science does in truth exist in the conservation facility, but it is barred from application. Both abuse intelligence and damnably downgrade our competence.
I took the liberty at Oxford of describing an example of each of these two kinds of conservation installations which I happen to have visited in my own country. I reported how in the example I selected for the first type, an unusable X-ray unit was positioned between the doors to separate offices filled with personnel. I commented that it was no doubt fortuitous for the physical well-being of the workers that this unit did not function, and went on to describe a nearby room where, along with other equally unserviceable instrumentation, stood a fine new epitechniscope. Its focusing head was missing—either omitted from the original purchase order or from shipment. The loss of this vital part in no way deterred guides from drawing visitor attention to the big microscope along with the rest of the “dead” machines as evidence of the scientific expertise the laboratory boasted. As the example chosen for the second category, where everything was for real and worked, I described a facility with excellently appointed quarters on either side of a long corridor. Behind closed doors on one side the skilled researchers continued their competent investigations. Behind closed doors on the opposite side equally skilled practitioners conducted their equally competent remedial operations. Call it an invisible wall, that long empty corridor, for it surely confirmed the stated prohibition against any interchange between research scientists and “working” personnel.
At Oxford I deliberately elaborated and detailed my descriptions, informing my audience quite truthfully that neither of the described sites was likely to be familiar to them. I was judged guilty of duplicity. Repeatedly during the days following my talk people came up to thank me privately for exposing such and such a laboratory or workshop, invariably mentioning names and places I not only had never seen, but never heard of. My denials that these foreign prototypes were not secretly my examples were not believed. Very obviously I hit on a situation which is universal. It was at least comforting that the sorry forms were recognized by some for the travesties they are.
We cannot permit such expensive dichotomy. Excuses are no longer tenable. If we assert that we are the offspring of the so-called marriage between science and art, we had best admit that right now we are nothing to boast about. We have two heads with no strong facial characteristics on either; perhaps only two hands in which case neither knows what the other is up to, and a malfunctioning heart if any. That marriage was in name only and founded no family unit. Practitioners do not love their scientific brethren, and the sentiment is reciprocated. Nowhere does half of any general audience comprehend even half of the scientific offerings. Since our audiences consistently react to unintelligibility as plausibly scientific, the bad papers are quite apt to receive more attention than the good ones. It is perfectly accurate that many practitioners do not want to understand scientists, but just as accurate that scientists are convinced they could not if they wanted to. What do we do, throw up our hands and cry a plague on both houses? We need each other.
Is there to be a competition in inferiority between the working conservator, who may not be able to identify synthetic ultramarine, and the conservation scientist, who for the life of him could never replace a section of damaged boulle? Is one, ipso facto, more or less gifted than the other? Say we estimate that no more than 5% of all practicing conservators make daily use of technical aids even when they know how these function, can we also estimate that not 2% of our scientists have ever taken the trouble to observe thoughtfully the painstaking routines a practitioner employs to rescue deteriorated creative matter? The shoes are off on both feet, or they pinch equally; however we express it it is everybody's fault. Practitioners, who heap abuse on scientists for their apparent inability to take into consideration the infinite variables we encounter in operation after operation, are just as angry when the scientist comes up with negative or no evidence after a complicated research. There are rarely easy answers for either of us. Besides, the conflict between theory and practice has produced ridiculous attacks and counterattacks in other fields as well as conservation. What seems so silly is that in this small, small realm of service our scientists and our practitioners should stand pat on platforms they hold as opposite when they could fill the stage between them with impressive joint drama.
The image of the conservator, subconsciously accepted, is the one we must flesh into reality. Science is not our opponent nor do our skills contravene it. The reiterated complaints from extreme positions should be so watered down by time that they drip rust. No technical aid nor scientific instrumentation ever claimed to replace human competence. The cry of “substitution” is a worn out excuse for a far too costly rejection. Is there anyone who does not welcome an opportunity to add to a wealth of information? As I see it we may, each and everyone of us, be endowed with a unique gift, some one thing or more which we do better than any other person. Say in a sense that we are wonder-children, why should we hesitate to become more wonderful? Why not decide in favor of an aim which unites manual sensitivity and aesthetic expertise with the mastery of contemporary instrumentation and analytical techniques?
Let us admit that the way out of our dilemma is to be as willing to learn as we must be to teach. The exchange should begin on a basic level. Neither scientist nor practitioner will win kudos by out-snubbing the other. Let neither of us boast of understanding until we have it, and let neither refuse to explain what we know in terms comprehensible to one another. I suspect the success of this venture would be worth the all around sacrifice of unwarranted ego. It can be done. It must be done.
It will not be easy. Agreement among ourselves is the giant step. Morale will face problems not just from within our ranks. There are many outside our field who will move to prevent the spread of any communion between the conservation practitioner and the conservation scientist. There are those to whom such fusion is dangerous. The art world is filled with individuals who prefer their conservator like the figure of Justice, blindfolded. Science, even at its very basic levels, has a disturbing way of adding to vision: it denies to honesty the ability to connive at blindness. With collectors and dealers, who insist that what looks lovely shall be deemed so and its surface remain unchallenged, technical examinations will never be popular. This is an inescapable fact. Not everybody in the art world is restricted to playing the skin game any more than every conservation installation falls into one or the other of those two deplorable categories where science is either make believe or segregated. There are happy exceptions. Only they are the exceptions, not the malignant norms.
Our future will have battles. Culture is a business. The art market is not too different from the used car market. Displays may be more precious, and terminology erudite, but the ploys are similar. In one way or another almost every item is featured as having been made by Benvenuto Cellini himself, given to or stolen by an ancestor of the present owner, an undamaged, unaltered gem, the item has never been more than dusted over lightly by descendants of the original servitors and then with cloth made from the fur of stillborn unicorns…. Of course not every spiel is quite that blatant, but the buyer who chooses to beware and calls a conservator to investigate invites very unwelcome waves.
As a group we must cease to let ourselves be controlled to such a large extent by persons who are less qualified than they could be. I use the word “could” intentionally because change is not impossible. In my opinion we have served the art world long enough as flunkeys. It is time to dismantle the two-headed freak and pull ourselves together. If we work hard enough we can achieve a blend of the best our twentieth century has to offer in science and technology with the best we have inherited from twenty centuries of tradition. The struggle will not be painless. All matter seems to be disintegrating faster and faster. We may not underestimate the phalanx which will be drawn up to protest the image of authority we hope to formulate.
I ended my Forbes lecture with a plea which is not out of place here. Nothing is likely to last forever, and we know all too well the best we can attempt is to make as much as possible of our heritage last for a bit longer. Paul Coremans, one of our very greats, once said: “It is the responsibility of the conservator to see that the dreams of artists survive.” Fifty years ago Dr. Forbes tried to show his students how a combination of expert craftsmanship with the use of sensitive machines might serve to help preserve this world's treasures. How rewarding it would be for us, and for them, if we could implement their visions.