Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Shroud of Turin – a conservation disaster

As a trainee conservator I was brought up on the story of the ‘ famous’ conservation disaster that the Elgin Marbles suffered at the British Museum in 1938. Famous it certainly was with the media breaking news of the ‘scandal’, followed by extensive questions asked about it in the House of Commons, the furore only really dying down due to the onset of the Second World War.
There is no doubt that serious and irreparable damage was done to the marbles at the hands of a British Museum mason and various labourers working under his charge. Quite who knew what amongst the BM’s keepers (as curators are called there) is unclear, but the weight of evidence is that it was a decision made by the mason himself to ‘clean up’ the marbles. What is clear is that the ‘cleaning up’ involved extensive use of copper chisels and wire brushes over a protracted period (the sculptor Jacob Epstein who first spotted the damage believed it had gone on for 15 months) resulting in loss of essential marks and most importantly the golden brown patination that Pentelic marble acquires when exposed to light over long periods. Luckily at least the mason and his team were stopped before all the sculptures had been cleaned.

Surely such a tragedy could not be allowed to happen again in this day and age. Yes, we may argue over the extent of conservation and how it is approached, witness the Sistine chapel, but such things are undertaken in the full light of international scrutiny. So it was with a sense of amazement and despondency that I came across an article in the latest news e-conservation magazine entitled The “Restoration” of the Turin Shroud: A Conservation and Scientific Disaster By William Meacham.

Amazement that I had not heard about this disaster before (Meacham published a book on it in 2005), and despondency that so recently as 2002 a conservation project on what is one of the great treasures of the world can have been so calamitously carried out. Do read the full story in the on- line magazine, but let me also summarise.

The Shroud is probably the world’s most famous textile. Believed to be the burial cloth of Christ, a sample of it was blind tested by a number of independent laboratories around the world in 1988, and the date of the Shroud identified as between 1260 and 1390 AD. As a result of this dating process, the methodology of which was widely questioned in Italy, a group of five textile conservation experts were brought together by the Catholic Archbishop of Turin to advise on the optimum preservation of the cloth, particularly how to protect it from Turin’s air pollution. Meacham was one of those five. By 2000, however only one of those five remained, the others having all resigned due to differences of opinion on the proposed preservation process, including Meacham.

Sometime between June and July 2002, the remaining textile conservation expert undertook a secret ‘restoration’ of the shroud, which involved removal of the 1532 patches and backing cloth added after fire damage at that time, and cleaning of ‘dust and residues’. Whilst this Swiss textile conservator seems genuinely to have believed she was doing the right thing, her techniques beggar description. Apart from handling the cloth all the time without gloves and beaming strong unfiltered light on it throughout the restoration (bear in mind part of the power of the Shroud is its faded negative image of a man), repairs undertaken by nuns in 1532 with great reverence and golden needles praying whilst they did so were discarded as being of no value, debris and dust, including vital pollen samples, was vacuumed off, and several dozen square centimetres of charred cloth around pre-1532 small burn holes scraped away.

Sadly the Vatican, despite petitioning, has not responded to a call for an international commission to be set up to examine all matters relevant to the Shroud’s conservation.

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