Learning from Conservation Expertise for an Object-Oriented Historical Research

Between the 8th and 10th of this month, I attended the international conference “The Making of Art Expertise: Changing Practices of Art History & Conservation, 1850–1950,” organized by members of the Artechne project. For three days, experts from different fields gathered to discuss the development of science-based practices in conservation and the concept of “science of art” (or Kunstwissenschaft) in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Topics ranged from how science, technology, and education contributed to this development to how conservation became a discipline. We also had a chance to tour the Ateliergebouw (center for restoration and conservation, science, research and education for several related institutions in the Netherlands) and peeked into the ongoing conservation projects from various departments.

On the surface, modern conservation practice and the history of this discipline is quite a different subject from seventeenth-century watercolor flower books. Yet, many of the speakers presented relatable issues that I encountered during my several research trips to study the flower books for my project. Since my research focuses a lot on the materiality of images, working with the physical objects often requires me to learn how to properly handle  the watercolor albums to ensure their conservation. I also met with a couple of conservators in Copenhagen and Berlin to discuss the treatments the flower books received in the past. This basic understanding of conservation practices came in handy to follow the topics and discourses throughout the conference.


Diverse types of sources

Two major points resonated particularly well. The first one is the diverse types of sources that were covered in this conference. Naturally, artworks and objects are often the most important source for conservators to study in order to build their expertise. Textural sources, such as historical recipes and conservation reports, are critical to learn the historical materials and techniques of the objects, as well the treatments they have undergone. A less considered source is recordings of oral history—for example, interviews with ex-conservators about the projects they participated. All these different sources contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of an object and how to better conserve them.

For my project, I work with all of these sources, despite my research question is not related to the conservation of the flower books I have studied. Traveling to all the libraries and museums is to examine the materiality and condition of the flower books. Historical recipes will be the major source for comprehending the material properties of seventeenth-century watercolors. Conservation reports, despite only occasionally available, help me grasp what parts of the flower books have been altered in the past. On top of all, oral history, or closer to oral transmission of conservation expertise in my case, has been a highly useful source to understand the materiality of the flower books.

Even though many of the flower books I examined are considered top pieces in their holding institutions, they usually do not have an extensive conservation history. Within my central corpus, only the Gottorfer Codex at the National Gallery of Denmark has received major conservation in the 2010s. This project resulted a couple publications detailing the treatments and results, as well as videos of the process (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2, or Vid. 1 and Vid. 2 in line with the oral history theme here).[1] For the rest of the flower books, much of my knowledge related to their bindings, papers and parchments, and such, came from my conversations with the conservators, based on their expertise and experience of working with the flower books and similar objects instead of written documentations. How to textualize the information I gathered through oral communication is thus something worthwhile to think about to properly cite these sources in the future.

Fig. 1/Vid. 1. Conservators discussing and showing their process about conserving the Gottorfer Codex. Source: SMK – National Gallery of Denmark

Fig. 2/Vid. 2. Follow-up of the Gottorfer Codex conservation project. Source: SMK – National Gallery of Denmark


The awareness of what has been changed

The second point is how much artworks and objects were altered during conservation. There are many reasons for conservators to preserve or remove something on an object. For example, the keynote speaker, Prof. dr. Noémie Étienne from the University of Bern, demonstrated how institutional agendas, economics, and politics, in additional to practical reasons, easily affected the conservation decisions experts from various disciplines made for the opening of the Louvre museum in Paris in 1793. While not all projects have such clear agendas, the awareness of works being drastically altered due to conservation practices came up several times during the conference. What we are seeing today in museums may have been very different from what people saw in the past, which is not always explicitly explained to the public.

During my research trips, I was initially rather frustrated with the lack of written conservation records. However, I started to think that maybe this is a positive thing after the conference. Unlike prints and drawings that are put on display, watercolors in albums are often well preserved. When a book is closed, the covers protect the sheets from sun damage, and thus less prompted to the fading of colors. While deterioration of pigments and papers is inevitable in some places depending on the materials used, the leaves in seventeenth-century flower books usually still contain their original fresh and vibrant colors. Thus, when looking at a flower book, what we see might be not too far from what people in the early modern period would have seen.


Learning more from conservation

One of the benefits of working closely with and alongside the Artechne project is this kind of interdisciplinary activities that constantly help me rethink my research (objects) from different perspectives. With more and more advanced non-destructive technical analysis methods available, I hope that there may be opportunities to technically examine some early modern (botanical) watercolors with conservators to gain another perspective from conservation as a discipline. For an object-oriented project like mine, knowing the conservation history of an object and learning from conservation expertise and practices can help us more objectively interpret what we see in the object.


[1] Niels Borring, Christian Balleby Jensen, and Anja Scocozza, “The Gottorfer Codex – Four Volumes of Art,” in Flowers and World Views, eds. Eva de la Fuente Pedersen and Hanne Kolind Poulsen (Copenhagen: Statens Museum for Kunst, 2013), 170–185; Borring, Jensen, and Scocozza, “The seventeenth-century florilegium Gottorfer Codex: Examination and restoration of 1180 gouache flower paintings on parchment,” in Care and Conservation of Manuscripts 14, ed. M. J. Driscoll (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2014), 137–148.

3 thoughts on “Learning from Conservation Expertise for an Object-Oriented Historical Research”

  1. What a fascinating article! It never occurred to me that conservation might change an object. Is there a reason why this isn’t made more commonly known to the public?

    1. I am not very certain, but I think mostly because including such information will make the plaques even more cluttered than they already are sometimes. However, many museums have been including the ‘before’ and ‘after’ conservation pictures of paintings as part of the exhibition displays to help visitors understand this.

      1. Thank you for sharing this. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed this before, but I’ll certainly look in the future.

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