en français

Ron Spronk 

The research and exhibition project The Unvarnished Truth: Exploring the Material History of Paintings, organized by the McMaster Museum of Art, is another welcome example of a fruitful interdisciplinary collaboration of art historians, art conservators, and conservation scientists. Nenagh Hathaway and Brandi MacDonald, both PhD candidates (at Queen’s University and McMaster University, respectively), did an exemplary job of coordinating this project. The results of this four-year venture are laid out in this publication. The McMaster Museum of Art and McMaster University deserve much praise for embracing and supporting The Unvarnished Truth from its very conception, and for realizing the project in close collaboration with colleagues from Queen’s University and other institutions. Over the last century, university art museums in the United States have played a major role in this highly interdisciplinary field of art conservation science, and it is exciting to see that this tradition is now also spreading to Canada. By its very name and nature, a research university brings together the different disciplines within the arts and sciences. The Unvarnished Truth exhibition also shows that relatively small museums can make major contributions to this field, when such work more typically takes place in large museums that have specialized art conservators and conservation scientists on staff. It is in this latter arena that recent changes in models of collaboration among the disciplines can be most clearly noticed.

Museum curators and art conservators share the responsibility of conserving artworks in public collections.[i] According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, to conserve is “to keep from harm, decay, loss or waste, especially with a view to later use.”[ii] A curator—traditionally, an academically trained art historian—is largely responsible for the research, management, and display of a museum’s permanent collection, and for making artworks and the information about them accessible. In addition, a curator often organizes temporary exhibitions, using works from the institution and, at times, loans from other collections.

The primary task of an art conservator, by comparison, is to monitor, research, and safeguard the material condition of artworks through preventive actions and, when necessary, to execute conservation or restoration treatments, or both. Historically, a restorer was typically trained in the traditional master-apprentice model. Today, the modern conservator, like the curator, is academically trained, but this is the result of a relatively new development that has been long in coming. Pioneering conservation specialist George L. Stout once wryly characterized art conservation as “the mongrel pup that had crawled through the academic fence.”[iii]

The responsibilities and tasks of curators and conservators within the museum sometimes overlap and can even be at odds. The organizers of the 2012 CODART (Curators of Dutch Art) conference on the topic did not mince words when they laid out areas of contention:

The crossover of responsibilities sometimes leads to conflict: Who decides on the conditions in which works of art are exhibited? Who determines the restoration priorities? Who has the final say in approving loan requests? Yet despite the occasional frictions among curators and conservators, technical research plays an increasingly significant role in the art historical interpretation of works of art and has become standard practice in studying museum collections.[iv]

These highly important points deserve some context, especially since these issues are relatively new and seem to have developed in parallel with the increased recognition of the importance of art conservation and the contributions of art conservators. Previously, whether as museum director, curator, or art history professor, it was the art historian who initiated and directed conservation projects. As a result, there are a number of examples of problematic restoration treatments, in the rather short history of the conservation field, that could have been avoided if art conservators had had shared influence over the direction of these projects.[v]

In today’s museum practice, it is a given that curators and conservators work closely to conserve artworks. The roles of the curator and the conservator have been transformed over the years, since the shared arenas of their activities, art museums, have changed so dramatically. In the past, the relationship between art historian and art conservator was generally more hierarchical, and thus clearer. While they now work more collaboratively, the traditional pattern of the art historian having a much larger say in decision-making than the art conservator still persists in many places. Nevertheless, over the last half-century or so, the art conservator has, on the whole, gradually claimed a better position at the negotiation table and has found a louder, clearer voice in deliberations on the “crossover of responsibilities” outlined above. That this voice is much needed is also obvious, since the numbers of loan exhibitions have increased dramatically in the last decades, and artworks seem to be travelling more than ever before.

But let us be careful to focus not only on conservators and curators as they do not make decisions in isolation. There are registrars, education departments, exhibition departments, and other groups that are legitimate stakeholders in these discussions. Restoration treatments have become exhibition driven, which can create significant problems in prioritizing and financing; and, perhaps worst of all, there is the issue of very rigid deadlines for the treatments themselves. All the players involved in the conservation of artworks have distinct tasks and responsibilities. However, the final responsibility for conserving the collection lies not with the individual curator or conservator, but with the museum director. If there are insurmountable problems between the curator and the conservator, it will be up to the director to find solutions and to make final decisions. It is also the director who must strive to achieve an optimal infrastructure for conserving the collections, and to weigh the different and often conflicting needs of the departments in regard to financing, real estate, and staffing.

The importance of institutional infrastructure is hard to overestimate. The conservator is a much-needed and valuable asset to museums, and should have a major voice in matters of collection care, loan requests, preventative actions, and prioritizing restoration treatments; many institutions have granted conservators the right of de facto veto on these matters. However, many institutions, the McMaster Museum of Art included, do not have conservators as permanent staff, relying instead on freelancers (or centralized government facilities). But how often may one expect a conservator to weigh in with an unpopular opinion when hired on a temporary contract? In my opinion, it should be a clear priority for museums with substantial volumes of loan traffic to have at least some of their conservators appointed to permanent positions.

The changing role of the conservator has probably become most visible outside the museum setting in the field of technical research, the last of the shared tasks listed by the CODART conference organizers. This is because conservators have become increasingly involved in technical studies of objects in the museum collections. Over the last decades, such studies have become part of mainstream museum activities, a development evidenced by the growth in publications and exhibitions on the subject, to which we now can add The Unvarnished Truth. But when you put your ear to the ground, it is possible to hear directors, and especially curators, complain about conservators performing too few treatments because of their increased activities in research. The changed role of the conservator in relation to technical research is directly related to a rather dramatic shift in the very nature of that type of research.

The study of materials and techniques is, by definition, an interdisciplinary field, where art historians, conservators, and scientists have collaborated effectively for many years. Traditionally, it was often the art historian who mediated among the disciplines and who formulated the underlying research questions. Generally speaking, however, over the last two or three decades a shift has occurred, and the role of the scientist has become increasingly important in such teamwork, and for many good reasons. Conservation science has swiftly developed into a fully established discipline, and the equipment for instrumental analyses has become increasingly complex, triggering further specializations within the field. Other sciences have also become rapidly more important, and artworks are now routinely examined with instruments such as synchrotron particle accelerators, high-resolution 3D microscopes, and optical-coherence tomography.

It is more and more difficult for the interested art historian to keep track of these developments or fathom the outcomes of the research, let alone steer such activities. Digital imaging is becoming progressively more sophisticated as well. One could, of course, set out to master MATLAB programming language and software to perform algorithm-based image stitching or registration of high-resolution images, but it is probably more efficient to work with imaging specialists and computer scientists. In addition, scientific research is often grant driven, and granting agencies tend to fund more requests from the harder sciences than from the humanities. Regardless of one’s feelings about the changing nature of conservation, overall this field is expanding exponentially, and the art historian is not always the most logical arbiter among the players involved. Rather, we now often find that it is the modern, academically trained conservator who is better equipped to bridge the multiple disciplines and to take on the central role of mediator.

This new role for the conservator is directly linked to changes in education and training. Over the last few decades, the study of art history has largely moved away from the art object itself, whereas in the same period the training of conservators at the academic level has significantly improved. By default, the training of conservators remains focused on the physical evidence of the artwork. In addition, many professionals are crossing the academic fence between disciplines at an individual level; more and more practising conservators now also have advanced degrees in art history. And although this would appear to improve the general parameters for interdisciplinary research, this is not always the case. In some research projects, there remains too little overlap of disciplines, and a lack of common language can hamper collaboration, especially between the art historian and the scientist.

The changing role for the art conservator and the scientist in the studies of materials and techniques appears to be reflected in how we refer to this field. Rather than “technical art history”—a very apt term, I think, coined by David Bomford some two decades ago—we now increasingly see the term “art technological research,” from the German word Kunsttechnologie. The development of technical studies separate from art history and the art historian is logical and organic, but it comes with the risk of losing an essential component. In my opinion, the more interesting interdisciplinary projects in this field are driven by broader research questions that have firm roots in art history, rather than in advances of technology or conservation treatments alone. It is the very study of materials and techniques that often allows us an intimate discernment of the artist’s intent. For me, this remains the holy grail of art history.


[i] This text is a much-abbreviated version of the author’s keynote presentation at CODART 15 (Curators of Dutch Art) held 18–20 March 2012 in Brussels, Belgium. The theme of this conference was “Conserving the arts: The task of the curator and the conservator?” The conference program with the full text and accompanying PowerPoint images of my presentation can be downloaded from http://www.codart.nl/images/RonSpronkFullText.pdf and http://www.codart.nl/images/Spronk_CODART15.pdf, accessed October 10, 2014. I am grateful to Dawn Carelli for a first edit of that presentation, and to Joan Padgett for further editing.

[ii] Lesley Brown, ed. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1993), 485.

[iii] George L. Stout, introduction to Wash and Gouache, by Marjorie B. Cohn (Cambridge, MA: Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Fogg Art Museum, 1977), 8.

[iv] Quoted from the CODART 15 program notes; see note 1.

[v] In my presentation at CODART 15, I discussed three such events from the 1890s, the 1930s, and the 1970s. These concerned, respectively, the splitting of six wing panels from the Ghent Altarpiece in Berlin by sawing them lengthwise; the restoration of Rogier van der Weyden’s Saint Luke Drawing a Portrait of the Virgin while it was in Nazi Germany, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the stripping of the early Italian panel paintings at Yale University; see note 1.