One of the hats I wear is co-editor of the AICCM ( the professional body for Australian conservators) Newsletter. In the latest edition we sought responses from a number of senior Australian conservators on where they stood on the remedial versus preventive conservation debate. This was prompted by an interview in a recent edition of the Getty Conservation Institute’s own newsletter Conservation Perspectives in which my friend Stephen Rickerby of the Courtauld Institute in London was frank about where he stood on the issue:
I had greater faith in remedial intervention. That faith has been lost—for me and, I suspect, for many others in the conservation profession. There’s a global trend toward preventive conservation and site management and away from remedial intervention. While we all still practice remedial intervention, we now have doubts about its efficacy, and we place it in a context of wider conservation measures. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we believe those other measures are going to save paintings. I think there is a more realistic view of what we can and cannot do. The best we can do is to slow deterioration. We’ve hopefully lost a lot of our hubris in terms of what we think we can achieve.
The reality is of course that it is artificial to see the issue as remedial vs preventive, as each serves a different purpose. Remedial conservation is generally about active intervention - ‘doing’ if you like - whereas preventive conservation is about context - ensuring the conditions are appropriate for extending the life of the object as far as possible.
But in asking the question of others it has prompted me to question where I stand. Working in private conservation for most of my life has meant that there has been a lot more doing than preventive work – we get asked to ’fix’ things much more than to consult on their environment. And that is undoubtedly one of the attractions of private conservation. Too many of my public sector colleagues seem disillusioned with the profession, saying they spend much of their time in meetings or on condition reporting rather than working on things.
But as I get older, do I have less faith in our ability to intervene successfully? No, I believe that our interventions continue to be justified, the difference being that the experience of years mean I know more about the likely outcomes. What I can see is that I have less faith in modern materials, or to put it another way, err towards using traditional materials wherever possible as we can predict so much better how they are going to perform.
So what did other senior conservators have to say on the issue? Opinions varied ranging from David Hallam at the National Museum’s forthright comment that “Preventive conservation is a great ‘cop out’ for those who do not have the science basis or practical skill to carry out successful treatment” to Sarah Clayton at the Australian War Memorial questioning the success of some remedial conservation “Over the last 20 years I have seen too many interventive treatments that have not lasted the distance”, whilst David Thurrowgood at the National Gallery of Victoria stated that remedial skills are at the core of the conservator’s work “The skill of remedial intervention, the ability to sensitively and intelligently intervene in the care of an object, is central to what many conservators need to be able to undertake with confidence”.
In all we solicited almost a dozen responses from senior conservators. It confirmed that one size does not fit all, and that different approaches for different objects is vital. It highlighted to me that, like so much in life, experience and perspective counts for a great deal.
In conservation it gives us the confidence to do little or nothing where that really does appear to be the most effective option for long term preservation of an artwork or object. Barbara Applebaum’s seminal book on this issue ‘Conservation Treatment Methodology’ Elsevier 2007 is a must-read if you want to learn more.
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