Having just finished reading “The Hound in the Left-hand Corner”, by Giles Waterfield (Washington Square Press, 2002), a satire about an important day in the life of a British museum, I’m coming to the conclusion that museum novels are essentially the same book. They have odious museum directors, members of Boards of Trustees, and heads of security, as well as scheming curatorial and conservation staffs– none of whom resemble any museum employees I know. Could there ever be a museum novel featuring a conservator who is a serious, underpaid (for her level of knowledge and skills) middle-aged woman rather than an eccentric dandy or very young and glamorous girl?
Recently, I read two novels which feature conservators—“Triple Take. A Museum Story”, by Robert Barclay, former senior conservator at the Canadian Conservation Institute and “The Last Painting of Sara De Vos”, by Dominic Smith, a novelist who looked to Stephen Gritt, Director of Conservation at the National Gallery of Canada for “insights into the technical aspects of conservation and restoration”. In each novel, the technical descriptions are the most accurate and believable aspects of the story.
Just two examples. In “Museum Story”, the senior conservator at the Canadian Museum of Personkind uses vacuum impregnation to treat a wooden rattle that had been badly damaged by insects. “For objects in this condition, soaking with resins in solution under laboratory conditions is essential. But it takes a good deal of courage. Stephanie (the conservator) was only too aware that she was about to alter permanently a museum object and do something to it that was potentially dangerous to its future wellbeing. There would be no going back.” In “The Last Painting of Sara De Vos”, Dr. Helen Birch, the conservation scientist at the Art Gallery of New South Wales has studied and analyzed three paintings, one of which the reader knows to be a forgery. Birch instructs the curator (who was the forger of the painting forty years earlier) about the manufacture and use of lead tin yellow and then says, “When I run the elemental analysis on the one on the left, study the gritty yellows, it show a fair amount of silica dioxide—the main ingredient in sand. Whoever made this one used sand to try to get the same textured feel, but the metal soaps give it away. There are no lead soaps in the fake from Leiden.”
The reader who begins these books looking for light entertainment may finish them not only entertained but with an appreciation for the difficulties and complexities of conservation and conservation science.
Each time I hear of a new work of fiction featuring a conservator as a character, I think, “Maybe this time they’ll get it right”. I had high hopes for Cathleen Schine’s novel, “They May Not Mean To, But They Do”. Before I started reading the book, I knew that its’ protagonist was not the beautiful 25 year old working on valuable Old Master paintings in a famous Italian museum while being romanced by a wealthy and dashing man usually found in works of fiction that feature conservators, but rather an older woman working in a small underfunded and under staffed museum trying to cope with family crises and keep up with her work. Real life, I thought.
As a mother of two small children (ca. 1960), the protagonist Joy Berman volunteered two days a week in a small museum dedicated to the immigrant experience on the Lower East Side of New York City. When her family suffered financial setbacks, she took a full time salaried job there as the assistant to the conservator. The conservator encouraged her to go back to school. So far this seems plausible. Joy needed the income and could not stop working to go to school full time, so she cut back to part time work, spent years earning her PhD, and was hired by that same museum as its conservator. Now, I’m a bit confused. A PhD in what and how does that PhD prepare her for hands- on conservation bench work?
What is most upsetting to me is the way Joy’s job seems to have little place in her life. When she has been away from it for months (granted due to illness) giving not a thought to what is happening to the collection in her absence, she returns expecting that all museum activity concerning her department stopped awaiting her return. Where is the professionalism of the conservators we know?
Yes, it is a comic novel. But fiction is the means through which a large part of the general public learns about conservators and what they do at work. And the novelists still haven’t gotten it right.