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The science of art--preservationists at work

MACC Paintings Conservation.jpgWhile it may not actually be populated by swashbucklers like Indiana Jones or crime-solvers like Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan, the real-life field of art and archaeological conservation does have its share of heroes--and a fair amount of intrigue. And, of course, the cachet of playing a role in preserving some of history's most precious and invaluable treasures.

This July 20, participants in the Preserving Precious Objects Curiosity Camp will get the chance to go behind the scenes of three different conservation labs to learn about and understand how museums and individuals care for, maintain, and conserve objects and artworks.

And while most everyone has seen the results of a conservator's work on display in a museum, gallery, or private collection, few people in the general public are privy to the painstaking work that goes into authenticating, repairing, and maintaining these artifacts.

During the daylong Curiosity Camp, campers will visit the Midwest Art Conservation Center (MACC) housed within the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; the lab of a private-practice conservator who specializes in sculpture, historic objects, and outdoor artworks; and the four conservation labs of the Minnesota Historical Society devoted to books and paper; objects; textiles; and flags.

MACC Objects Before.jpgMACC Objects After.jpg
MACC executive director Colin Turner says, "If you have an interest in art, science, history, or law--or any combination of those four, really--you might find this particularly intriguing. Art, because things here are often very beautiful and inspiring. Science, because of the conservators' methods in dealing with the physical properties of things. History, because each piece here has a place in our regional, national or world history. Law, because the things in our labs are physical evidence and our work helps scholars and interested people draw conclusions about historic occurrences or artists' lives."

Diverse interests were, in fact, what led Turner to his current role of conservator. "I originally studied to be an archaeologist back in the late 1970s. I followed some other opportunities at the time and had a business career for some 20 years. During that time, I always volunteered at nonprofit organizations and learned a lot about nonprofit management. When I decided to revisit my original pursuits in history and archaeology, I found this position to be the perfect marriage between my skills and interests," he says.

Some conservation labs work with large-scale operations such as major museums, while others work solely with private individuals. MACC does both, says Turner. "The staff's experience and skill are provided to the largest art museums in this region, but are also provided to the smallest institutions with the least of means--and to the public at large."

How does an organization decide what to do with each object brought in? What gets repaired or re-created, and what is simply preserved as is? Typically, a conservator will have a specialty area, Turner says, and while they use their judgment on what is the "right" balance of restoration and preservation for each article, their work is also governed by The Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice of the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, a national alliance for the conservation field.

"Although that code of ethics and practice is a very lengthy and complex document," Turner says, "the basic premise is akin to the Hippocratic oath: 'do no harm.'"

He continues, "The variety of pieces that come to our labs is simply astounding: from extraordinary, world-renowned works of art to archaeologically important artifacts to family heirlooms and personal treasures. Each one of the conservation and preservation specialists has an area of expertise, advanced training, and decades of experience."

MACC Paper After.jpgMACC Paper Before.jpgWhich is why, he says, people should ask a conservator directly what they believe the right course of action is. "I can say that 'judgment,' very experienced and well-formulated judgment, is a key factor. This is exactly why you should only have people who are truly qualified doing conservation treatments."

And while they may not be cracking a bullwhip and dodging bad guys like Indy or moonlighting as gumshoes, conservators do play the role of "hero" in many ways--whether it's by preserving a treasured family heirloom from the ravages of time, preparing a historical artifact to go on public display, or restoring a long-lost painting from a master artist.

"The majority of diagnostics work that we do is used to expand the knowledge about other important information, such as dating, provenance, structural and aesthetic techniques, shipping, handling, and display techniques. We don't solve crimes, exactly," says Turner. "But we do provide evidence that can lead to the authentication of pieces. Sometimes that knowledge is then linked to a criminal activity...There is a forgery hanging in my office that our conservators discovered. People find that an interesting case to see and hear about."

For more information on the Preserving Precious Objects camp, or on any of the other upcoming Curiosity Camps, visit the LearningLife Web site.

Images courtesy of Midwest Art Conservation Center

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