JAIC 1994, Volume 33, Number 2, Article 9 (pp. 185 to 191)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1994, Volume 33, Number 2, Article 9 (pp. 185 to 191)




Discussing special criteria for treatment of collections in historic structures implies that we all know the criteria that guide treatment of collections in art museums. It has only gradually become clear to what extent our ideas about conservation are based on the fine arts model. Therefore, it is necessary to formulate what seem to be the present criteria for treatment of collections housed in art museums before contrasting them with the criteria for collections in historic buildings.

The traditional job of conservators has been the complete labor-intensive treatment of one object at a time, with the dual goals of prolonging useful life and making the object look as good as possible. This model arose largely from the management of collections of paintings, which have relatively high individual monetary values and a relatively small total number of pieces. In addition, the typical aging properties of paintings—which combine such disparate materials as drying oil films, natural resin varnishes, animal glue, and linen canvases—have made major treatments of paintings a virtual necessity. Of course, few paintings of any age have survived without major treatment of one kind or another, and attempting to return paintings as much as possible to their condition when they were created may necessitate the removal of later additions. Improved environmental control in museums in some cases provides the same protection that certain kinds of treatments do, so that the first goal of treatment—prolongation of the physical life of the painting—can sometimes be fulfilled with somewhat less drastic or intrusive treatments if the paintings are to stay in well-controlled environments.

The second goal of treatment in art museums—making works of art look as good as possible—is still vital. Although conservators may differ about the most desirable treatment methods, art museums do not in any way question the assumption that a treatment should make the piece look beautiful—within, of course, the parameters of accuracy and honesty. Since the likelihood is relatively high that any painting in a collection will at some time be on public display, complete and up-to-date treatments of virtually all the paintings is seen as favorable.

Many museums' definitions of “art” have broadened to include ethnographic materials and furniture and other decorative objects. Curators and scholars interested in these materials, which traditionally have not been considered fine art, have been flattered to see these collections being honored. The art museum approach to conservation, therefore, has become particularly appealing. With objects looking so beautiful, it may be difficult to remember that the “masterpiece” approach stresses certain qualities of the objects over others. It removes the items from their cultural context and ignores function and history. Nevertheless, the approach has without a doubt been successful in enhancing the public's (as well as scholars') appreciation for an ever-broadening class of cultural artifacts. It is important to remember that carrying out major treatment on pieces that once might not have seemed worth the time and effort has produced some opportunities for conservators.

In protest against this star power mind-set, and perhaps in the service of multiculturalism and democratization of the museum, many art museums, encouraged by the progressive policies of federal granting agencies, have changed to a collections management mode. The fact that many major museums have had professional conservators carrying out expert treatments on the stars of their collections for several decades may make this change in emphasis relatively painless.

Many collections are made up of large numbers of items, each with relatively small monetary value, whose value to the institution and to society rests in the aggregate. Conservators have increasingly taken on collections management projects, including rehousing, containerization, and environmental control. Economic problems and rising real estate values may force institutions to make maximum use of their stored collections in order to justify the cost of high-quality storage space. Changes in the magnitude of museum acquisitions, rising art prices, and the extinction of the traditional societies and craft traditions that produced much of the world's art have all contributed to museums' renewed attention to assuring maximum usefulness and life span for their stored collections.

Conservators in the art museum world, then, seem to apply two different models to collections management: They either treat each object so that it looks and behaves its best, or they provide storage to protect whole collections while treating only those items that are in physical danger.

Copyright 1994 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works