Art Conservation Studio

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Will the Future of Art Conservation be Found in a Software Program?

It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.

― Albert Einstein

The question may seem silly at first read, but consider the increasing perfection of three- dimensional computer-generated objects. Why do we revere art and craft? Why do we venerate it by putting it in museums, in galleries, and in our homes? Why has so much time and treasure been allocated to creating incredible masterpieces of architecture, paintings, drawings, sculpture, furniture, literature, and music throughout human existence?

It’s easy to answer the question if the human nature of it is considered. Using our imagination we can take raw materials, manipulate them in various ways, and create something that looks nothing like the particular raw material(s) from which the object is created. The examples of such creations are endless. Human beings seem to have a need to create beautiful majestic things, things which inspire and uplift the spirit – cave paintings in France, Hindu rock architecture, cathedrals that seem to defy gravity to take-your-pick in the 21st century. It’s ingrained in what makes us human. Imagine the idea of some group of people, thousands of years ago, wanting to memorialize the surroundings, culture, religion, and maybe just the mundane everyday life of what is now Lascaux, France.

In the area of Tennessee in which we live cave paintings by Native Americans, often thousands of years old, are being studied by archeologists at the University of Tennessee Knoxville and Mississippi State University (read about it here). The composition of the North American cave paintings is similar to those found in Lascaux, France. Mythical human/animal beasts, vegetation, hunting scenes, communal rituals, etc. Two cultures with no cross pollination, no common language, nothing in common but their nature, express themselves in nearly the same way. And we, thousands of years removed, revere the work of these ancient people just as they surely revered it.

Our purpose, as conservators, is preserving artifacts. We do this in large part for future generations to enjoy. Years are spent studying and training in an effort to perfect the craft of conservation. When we put our hands on an object we do it in a reverential way, thinking of the maker and the processes involved in the creation.

Lately, an argument is being made that, if fully realized, may destroy the very essence of how we see and subsequently respond to art and possibly reform the nature of our profession: namely, that creating reproductions, especially digital reproductions, is an appropriate way to preserve art and cultural heritage and make them accessible. This application of nascent technology is still in its exploratory phase, but it is rapidly changing the way audiences interact with art. For example, “Are replicas changing the way we see art?” (Smithsonian Magazine), discusses the human experience of digital reproductions, and the ReACH Project: Reproduction of Art and Cultural Heritage (V&A, UNESCO) is working to create and establish international best practices for institutions engaging with reproductions of artworks.

There may be some good reasons for digitally reproducing artwork. But what are the unknowns of an initiative such as the ReACH project? How will digital copies be treated? Will the copies themselves become the art? Who will get to see the originals? Will anyone get to see them? As I have noted, art is what it is because it’s ultimately human expression. I can’t imagine it will have the same appeal if it’s generated by the magical workings of a microchip – unseen and often impossible to describe.

I love old things. I love what old things reveal if looked at in the right way. All the imperfections that come about from a long existence make the thing compelling – the fading of colors, shrinkage, cracking, staining and all sorts of decay. While working on old things I see the previous repairs, the attempts to preserve beauty. These all contribute to the objects’ character, its story and the value placed on it.

There’s a wonderful short story by G.K. Chesterton that I think apt:

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

–G.K. Chesterton, “The Drift from Domesticity,” The Thing  (1929)

Is our profession in danger of becoming antiquated by digital technology? Are we inadvertently contributing to our possible obsolescence by the good intentioned argument for promoting preventive conservation practices? Practices that would lend themselves to the increasing use of digital reproductions? Preventive conservation certainly has its usefulness when properly considered, but should it be thought of as an alternative to the practice of down-and-dirty bench work? Is it possible that the increasing use of the latest technology, coupled with preventive conservation practices, will lead to an ever-expanding divide between the museum conservator and the conservator in private practice? And if it does, what are the possible consequences?

We should think this through very carefully before making decisions we may come to regret. If we become overly seduced by a form of mechanical rationalism, that is, the coolness and convenience of three-dimensional computer-generated objects replacing the human element, will art still inspire? A reproduction that comes out of what is essentially a machine does not have the ‘soul’ of that which comes from the hand of mankind. Will the public consider a perfectly rendered, beautifully candle-lit computer-generated copy, on a museum wall, as it does a masterwork, hundreds of years old?

Our profession will be better served and the cultural value of art enhanced if we combine craft and the technology available to us to preserve our material history. It is the path the intelligent reformer might very likely recommend.