JAIC 1981, Volume 20, Number 2, Article 2 (pp. 53 to 57)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1981, Volume 20, Number 2, Article 2 (pp. 53 to 57)

WALLPAPER CONSERVATION—PUZZLING PRIORITIES

Edward L. Kallop

ABSTRACT—As an interdisciplinary concern, historic wallpaper and its conservation open the door for an exploration of priorities which necessarily cut across the disciplines concerned and jointly involve curators, conservators—both paper and those specializing in pigments—as well as historic preservation architects and architectural conservators. Professional points of departure for each are not the same, thereby affecting priorities and how they are set. In today's economic climate with fiscal constraints all around us, priorities are essential with each of these disciplines playing a role that must understand other professional concerns and respect their particular priorities. Only in this way can the desired end be achieved with due dispatch and reasonable cost.

THE CONSERVATION OF WALLPAPER, which is the subject of this Symposium, would seem to be as removed as possible from the essentially bureaucratic exercise of setting priorities. For me as a curator it is always a welcome breath of fresh air to see my conservator friends busily at work performing technical marvels that utilize science in the best interests of the arts. By and large they seem wholly absorbed in the job at hand and altogether the atmosphere of the conservation laboratory strikes me as enviably serene.

Laboratories seem peopled by those who do rather than those who must plan. Priorities and their bureaucratic baggage seem to leave these good people happily untouched. By contrast the curator's lot seems to me a never ending round of planning for one thing or another that demands half the day preparing reports and the other half on the telephone. Priorities would seem to be an ever present concern. Common sense tells us that neither picture is wholly true. Let us attribute the idea to an observation I recently heard which goes, “The treadmill on the other side of the street is always greener.”

Nevertheless, it is the other side of the street. Conservators and curators are, however, dealing with articles in common, and we each need to know what the other is up to and why: in short, each other's priorities. A failing among curators may be an illusion that conservators have no need for priorities. Their priorities, it might seem, are dictated by curatorial demands. To an extent this may in fact be true, but again common sense indicates this to be an overly simplistic view. The long and short of it is that we all have priorities. If we did not, it is doubtful we would really accomplish very much.

We set priorities, formally or informally, and in doing so we become managers. We manage time, our own time, and to some degree most of us manage other people's time as well. To be carried out efficiently, this management is based on duly set priorities.

The act of setting priorities brings into play all sorts of factors that influence those indulging in the act. Among them are general professional discipline, particularized training and experience, personal preference, employer—or employee—pressure of various kinds, and so on. Ideally, it is an objective act; and for a certain limited range of actions, it no doubt is.

In the organization I work for, the National Park Service, we hear a good deal about management by objectives. This is an attempt to formalize the processes through the setting of duly considered priorities. In principle, all turns out as planned and everybody lives happily ever after. We are an agency of the Federal Government and those who work in it—regardless of what we do or on what level we do it—find it hard to ignore the hand of bureaucrary on our shoulder. Priorities change, often overnight, for reasons sound or unsound. In practice, it would seem that priorities are the playthings of those in the most advantageous position to set them. For us in a Federal agency the setting of priorities is most often an ultimately political decision. For those of you in different circumstances, the politics may not be precisely those I know, but I can imagine they are no less real. In one sense, this is the simplest kind of priority setting for me to comprehend. It is the least puzzling only because it has nothing to do with the weighing of professional projects on their professional merits. It belongs to the world of the manager whose first allegiance is to political reality. It is a world in which I have no base from which to argue.

Priorities only become puzzling, for me at least, when we begin to pay attention to professional merits as I know them. A little reflection tells me that the weighing of professional merits, regardless of the project or by whom weighed, is almost unavoidably an exercise in subjective judgment. In an ideal world, we all have an equal influence on decisions made which then represent a judicious blend of everybody's subjective judgment. In this world the project turns out satisfactorily. This, I suspect, may be the ultimate in management by objectives.

What are professional merits? Who in fact should be weighing which professional merits? Those of us in specialized disciplines generally recognize those waters out of which we should try to keep. This is not always easy. Sometimes we are forced into those waters and the results can be anywhere between disastrous and brilliant, but it is decidedly chancy. My concept of professional merits comes out of my professional background. My training, experience, and employer pressures all have their indelible influence on how I regard the merits of any project for which I am professionally responsible or have been asked to give my professional opinion. All of you, I am sure, can say the same. By the same token, all of you by no means share even any part of my particular background, having instead your own of which I may have little or no knowledge. In this, the best I can do is have a genuine empathy for your concerns and at the same time a respect, which may border on blind faith, for the professional judgments you bring to the act of dealing with professional merits. One might say it is an indulgence of professional good will, a department in which not too many of us are always and consistently benign. Backs do stiffen, heels dig in, mental blocks loom large, and confrontation is upon us.

All things being equal, this would seem to be an honest confrontation. It is simply the bringing together of two or more divergent professional personalities to weigh the merits of a single particular project.

So far I have managed to use the word wallpaper only once when I mentioned at the outset that the conservation of wallpaper would seem to be as removed as it is possible to be from the bureaucratic exercise of setting priorities. I elected instead to wander a considerable bit in the byways of the bureaucratic process, and to hint at the quasi-philosophical problems inherent in management by objectives. But in any confrontation among professionals they are problems which must be recognized, even as management by objectives gives the best promise for resolution.

I also mentioned earlier that priorities only become puzzling when we pay attention to professional merits. This Symposium has brought together about as many divergent professional personalities as I can imagine. Nevertheless, the emphasis is on professional, and our puzzling priorities are in a narrower context than they might be otherwise. Points of departure are already established. Moving this emphasis to the forefront, let us make the connection between wallpaper conservation and some of the philosophical problems hinted at.

First, there are two words to play with: conservation and preservation. Preserve and conserve in my dictionary have nearly identical definitions. Yet as it registers in my everyday thought process, conservation seems to be a specialized arm of preservation. Why? Is there a real distinction and if so, what is it?

Conservation in our professional context is practiced by conservators. But by whom is preservation practiced? There seems to be quite a larger body of persons engaged in this activity. Indeed, historic preservation is an accepted professional term in its own right with standards, criteria, representative organizations, not all of which are the same or even necessarily similar to those for conservators. A net effect is that as disciplines each tends to live apart from the other.

How do these disciplines separately view wallpaper? I will not attempt an answer since I am certain others on the program will. As I say, my concerns are those of a curator. Enter here a third discipline. Let me touch a bit on specific issues which in my view are ripe for further discussion as philosophical problems. In today's preservation climate it is commonly accepted that we all are concerned with the integrity of the cultural resource whatever it may be; in our instance let us say a particular wallpaper. Integrity is a philosophical concept and not without controversy. Does it really mean the same thing to all of us here? Perhaps. If we take a look at the history of preservation, which for our purposes includes conservation, we see that what were acceptable practices and results yesterday can be anathema today. The recreations of cultural resources—and these range from the wholesale restorations of medieval French architectural and sculptural works by the architect-engineer Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century all the way to Colonial Williamsburg—are out of fashion. In the area of fine arts, Andrew Mellon is credited with the purchase of Italian Renaissance paintings that were dazzling examples of the restorer's art, paintings sold to him by the famous dealer Sir Joseph Duveen. In their restored state, the paintings were once termed as having been “Duveenized.”

Critics of Colonial Williamsburg, with the articulate architectural editor of The New York Times Ada Louise Huxtable generally in the lead, are legion. For all its ready acceptance by the public, Colonial Williamsburg, say the critics, is a romanticization of history and therefore a falsification of historical integrity. There is no way that anything but a small part of what we see today at Williamsburg can be precisely as it was in the 18th century. Andrew Mellon's paintings are the core of the collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and unless they have been un “Duveenized” what we see is not the same thing put there by the artists who initially painted them and whose distinguished names they bear.

Restoration and reproduction, however, are all around us. It is all bad because it is not the same physical entity as the original. Current fashion also seems to say that reproduction should not attempt to duplicate in exact replica anything original, for this is to fan the flames of deception and to confuse posterity. The argument is nowhere better examined than in the ethics of operating museum shops. The shops themselves seem to be scrupulous in calling a reproduction a reproduction, but in supplying faithful copies of Sandwich glass, hand-stitched samplers, and Chinese Export ware, they open a cornucopia to those who might be less scrupulous in their resale. True, marks can indicate a reproduction but marks have been known to be removed in favor of replacements which lend a false tone of original authenticity.

If we do not falsify through a recreation because it romanticizes the original, and if we stop using absolutely faithful reproductions because they open the door of deception, what do we do?

For decades, Viollet-le-Duc has been dismissed as the ultimate falsifier. His restorations of Notre Dame in Paris, of the great Romanesque pilgrimage church at Vezelay, of the medieval walled towns of Carcassone and Pierrefonds bear the stamp of 19th-century sentiment as witnessed in the smiling faces of saints and angels in their 12th- to 14th-century robes. An irony is that Viollet-le-Duc is unexpectedly back in fashion. A major exhibition recently on view at the Grand Palais in Paris reveals the once-dimissed architect as a fascinating visionary, and, almost as an aside, a sensitive and excellent draughtsman. As visionary, Viollet-le-Duc is now handed the credit for bringing back to life a very significant portion of the material legacy of medieval France which in the early years of the 19th century lay in ruins, victim of the French Revolution and all the political and social upheavals that followed. Without him we might never have been offered the opportunity to stand in the vast square in front of Notre Dame and view the grand facade approximately intact as it had appeared five hundred years earlier.

In today's terms, Viollet-le-Duc violated at every turn the integrity of the cultural resource. But among those who make and break fashions in such matters, questions are being asked if he was not faithful to an integrity of a different order. In providing us with magnificant facsimiles, his commitment was less to a particular work as a physical entity than it was to the spirit of the work; his was a projection of the imagination of the era it represents.

Clearly it is safe to say that integrity as a concept is a philosophical issue. To bring the matter much closer to home, I will offer in the context of a larger issue what amounts to a laundry list of particular issues related to wallpaper and its preservation. Some may seem to you more easily resolved than others, but I offer them as points of departure for subsequent consideration.

Is there a need for us to arrive at a common definition of integrity as we who are here concerned with preservation, specifically wallpaper conservation, conceive of and use the term? To what lengths do we go or not go in insuring the integrity of a cultural resource when we are faced with compromising between financial limits and the best desirable technical procedures? Do we leave a historic paper on a historic wall to insure a coequal integrity although the paper may be in only fair, perhaps poor condition? Do we in turn leave alone a historic wall that would be better repaired in order to leave untouched a historic paper in good condition? Is a paper once off the wall no longer quite the same, and why not?

To go somewhat farther afield: Is our allegiance to the integrity of the paper's design and therefore its visual appearance, or to its physical properties as particular pigments on particular paper? Do historical associations take precedence over art historical or artistic values, and at what point would circumstances permit a shift in priorities without damage to a particular paper's integrity?

In all of this the word integrity is an anchor to which are tied these various either/or considerations. Wallpaper conservation, or to broaden it, wallpaper preservation seems to me a nearly ideal subject through which to probe the larger issues. There may be as many answers as there are those of us here. But as issues I believe they deserve airing.

Much of this Symposium will be given to reports of great technical interest. As we hear these reports most of us no doubt will be asking ourselves instinctively how what we hear fits into the various mental niches we individually maintain, niches that include all the standards, criteria, philosophical concepts, etc. which are our particular personal response.

I will no doubt listen as a curator for whom the chief meaning of a particular paper in question lies in its design. By background and experience I am trained to have a primary interest in its art historical context. Where the paper happens to be, however important as a historical consideration, is necessarily a secondary response. Pigments and paper on which they rest are also a secondary response. In the conservation of a particular paper I am therefore concerned for its physical health insofar as the integrity of the design is preserved. In my personal system of priorities, how it is preserved or even where necessarily comes second. I fully recognize that for others how or where will automatically come first.

As throughout this Symposium we examine the latest techniques and search for new procedures for wallpaper conservation, we have the ideal opportunity to explore the honest confrontations of our different disciplines. In our case the goal is to preserve. However, the constraints of time, money, availability of trained personnel, even limitations of equipment say that we must try to achieve the goal with due despatch in the most efficient manner possible. An effort unmanaged may not be a waste but it can be a mighty expensive use of the increasingly precious commodities that are time and money.

Setting priorities becomes even for us a necessary exercise. That as an exercise it is filled with liabilities cannot be a consideration if we are to manage by objectives. That priorities may be puzzling is not at all unhealthy. It is a signal that we all must understand each other to a degree where our mutual priorities are accommodated in pursuit of a commonly understood goal. In these sessions I am sure that this pursuit will stand paramount.

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Copyright © 1981 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works