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)




Neither of these strategies of the art museum world can be applied directly to historic house museums. The meaning of an individual object in a historic house museum typically depends neither on its individual aesthetic qualities nor its association with a large group of similar items useful for study. Its meaning rests instead on its placement in a particular room along with other kinds of objects. Virtually all its meaning may derive from the identity of the person who owned it, sat in it, or wore it, while much less importance typically is attached to the identity of the person who made it, a primary concern in art museums.

What do these philosophical notions have to do with conservation treatments? First, I believe we must re-examine the idea of making every object on exhibition look its best. Is it appropriate to restore paintings that will hang in a historic setting to the condition that we in 1994 like to see in an art museum exhibition gallery? Suppose, for example, a historic house contained paintings that had been bought through Lord Duveen, a turn-of-the-century dealer to the rich and famous who was notoriously intrusive in his preference for restoration, and those restorations were inappropriate to modern taste? Are the restorations part of the historical setting and therefore to be kept, or are they distractions from the value of the art and from our ability to see the hand of the artist?

A similar concern about the desired appearance of ethnographic objects casts some light on this issue. Ethnographic objects are, of course, not really particular kinds of objects, although we tend to use the term for what we used to call primitive art. The idea of ethnography relates to the goals of the collector or the institution holding such objects. If the purpose of the object in its setting is to shed light on the culture that made it or the people who used it, then it is an ethnographic object. The distinction is perhaps best illustrated by the period in the object's life in which we are most interested. If we wish to see the piece as it came from the creator's hands, it becomes a work of art; if we are more interested in how it looked when it was being used, then it is by definition an ethnographic object. Paintings hung in multiple rows to duplicate the appearance of a 19th-century picture gallery would become ethnographic objects and should most accurately be displayed with the “golden glow” of discolored varnish, which we understand to have been preferred at the time, and with all fig leaves, draped textiles, and potted palms intact. In other words, objects in a period setting may best be thought of as ethnographic objects: we wish to know primarily how they were used and what they looked like while they were in use.

Since the collection of a historic house museum is a group of movable objects and architectural elements made of a wide variety of materials, decisions that relate to the extent and desired result of treatment are complex. If we assume that a collection should reach a consistent level of treatment, then how do we deal with a room with three old faded samplers and a quilt, reproduction wallpaper and drapery, a tarnished brass candlestick, newly painted woodwork, two water-stained prints, and newly refinished old furniture? If the prints are washed and the brass is polished, does the quilt look shoddy by comparison? If the reproduction drapery is considered to be the best way to create the “look” of the original room, how about using a reproduction sampler or a modern copy of the quilt? There is clearly no single satisfactory answer for these questions, but it seems clear that they require a thoughtful and creative approach to questions of the desired appearance of pieces treated for a historic house interior. Among other issues is the question of the degree to which exhibition of reproductions compromises the visitor experience.

The best answer to these questions may lie in the interpretation of the rooms to visitors. Conservators and interpreters may need to work together to develop educational materials. The professionals in cultural institutions presumably understand the aesthetic and historic background of their collections, but visitors are in most cases unaware of it. More description of the presentation process would undoubtedly enrich the visitor experience, and conservators have a great deal to offer in this area.

On aesthetic grounds alone, the treatment of any object to be displayed in a historic house setting needs careful consideration. Such an object cannot necessarily be treated the same way it would be treated if it were to go on exhibition in a museum gallery. For example, several years ago my firm carried out a conservation assessment in a 1920s house that belonged to avid art collectors. The interiors had been assembled from various European bits—painted Venetian ceilings, stone rondels, Oriental wallpaper, friezes, and so on—and colors had been chosen for the rooms based on the colors of these decorative elements when they were collected rather than when they were created. Although the painted friezes were covered with discolored varnish, we recommended against cleaning them because of the potential of shifting the color balance of the rooms. Even this decision was, of course, a compromise, because the present color of the coatings is undoubtedly darker than it was when the pieces were collected.

There are no simple rules that can be followed. When conservators undertake the treatment of pieces to be exhibited as part of a historic interior, they and the custodians of the objects need to discuss with open minds questions that under other circumstances would never be asked. How much improvement in the appearance of the object is desirable? The treatment of objects so that they look better, but not too much better, can be technically quite difficult. Can a piece of furniture with a badly deteriorated surface be refinished, for example, to a point where it still looks used? Leaving objects unrestored is no solution. Things that look terribly neglected are no more accurate a reflection of their period than those that look brand new.

Copyright 1994 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works