|AIC members from all specialty groups are invited to attend and participate in the event “A failure shared is not a failure: learning from our mistakes,” happening on Saturday, June 2nd, from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. — click here to add it to your Sched. We will gather and share our cautionary tales, including treatment errors, mishaps, and accidents, with the idea of helping our colleagues not to repeat them.
Discussing mistakes is a hot topic that has already been embraced by others in our community. Two examples of events scheduled during the month of May are: “Mistakes were made,” a regular feature at the American Alliance of Museums conference, and the lecture “Conservation Confidential” hosted by our conservation colleagues across the pond in the Independent Paper Conservators’ Group.
Participants can speak for up to 5 minutes; if you prefer to remain anonymous, a reader will be happy to present your tale on your behalf. If you are unable to attend AIC’s Annual Meeting but would like to submit a tale to be read by one of our organizers or a colleague, please reach out.
Screens to project PowerPoint slides containing your images/video will be available (16:9 format), and a Dropbox folder will be made available for submissions. Please also bring your presentation on a USB Drive (highly encouraged). Time permitting, audience members inspired by their colleagues will be welcome to present. If appropriate (and acceptable to the speaker), the floor will be opened for questions and discussion following presentations. Extra points for suggesting safeguards and solutions!
Please note that this is a forum for sharing personal mistakes and solutions only. Participants are requested not to name other persons, organizations, work places, and avoid politics—institutional, national, and global!
The event will include a cash bar, so come, relax, unwind, share, laugh, groan, and learn. We plan to publish the event for those who wish to be included.
If you are interested in participating or have questions about the event, please contact Tony Sigel at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 617-767-1900 (cell), or Rebecca Gridley at email@example.com by May 10th.
Please include 2-3 quick sentences introducing your topic and indicate whether you plan to use a PowerPoint with images and/or video.
See you in Houston!
Nathália Vieira Serrano’s talk focussed on the “incorporation” and “disincorporation” (accessioning/deaccessioning) of archival documents in the Department of Archives and Documentation at Casa de Oswaldo Cruz, in Fundação Oswaldo Cruz, in Rio de Janeiro. She discussed the overarching framework that was developed to help guide decisions of accessioning and deaccessioning collection materials, and then as a case study, the application of this framework to a specific collection–a collection of history of science of public health. This collection consists of glass plate negatives, roll and sheet film, all by various photographers and on different themes including, history, health education, scientific divulgation, and life sciences. A survey determined that the images were still in good shape, as were their supports.
The talk was a nice example of the challenges staff in the world of preservation face when needing to determine what can stay and what needs to go, the many factors to consider, and the criteria and prioritization to establish when making such important decisions. Serrano mentioned the mission of Casa de Oswaldo Cruz, the difference between multidisciplinary vs transdisciplinary, and the different stakeholders (researchers, collection managers, and potential current and future interested parties) that are taken into account. She also referred to Salvador Muñoz Viñas writings on contemporary theory of conservation and his statement that conservation is not a neutral act.
I appreciate how it is difficult to convey fully in a 20-25 minute talk the complexity of these types of projects. There are so many interesting points to think about, large and small, and people from different points of interest that are part of the decision making process. If there is one area I would have been interested in learning more about, it was some similarities and differences in their approach when compared to other national and international institutions. The presentation also gave insight to a large collection in Rio de Janeiro, how it is stored, and the building and environment that surrounds it.
Two questions that were asked after the talk were:
- Is cost considered when deciding whether or not to deaccession? Answer: The survey is still underway, but cost will likely be considered.
- What is the size of the collection? Answer: Still to be determined. (But an image was shown of the storage area the collection takes up)
As the conservator and ongoing custodian of the historic murals at Rincon Center, 55 Mission St. in San Francisco, I have often been asked to render my opinion on the significance of these important artworks. In September of 1986, The San Francisco Business Journal wrote that I
“withheld my personal opinion on the art and preferred to talk about the restoration process itself .”
Due to the highly charged political content of these murals, I felt that it was not my position as a professional art conservator to render such an opinion. I have never experienced a need to comment on them from an artistic, historic or political vantage point until now in our current political climate.
These 27 panels represent the largest and most expensive single mural project ever awarded under the Depression era programs established to put artists to work. Many refer to these various projects as part the WPA program or Work Progress Administration. The Rincon Center murals specifically, were commissioned under a program directed by the U.S. Treasury Department, the last of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal art projects of the mid 20th Century. More importantly, they represent a moment in American history when art and history itself were put on trial.
The Rincon Annex Post Office murals were painted by Russian born artist Anton Refrieger in the post-World War II era between 1946 and 1948. It was a time when tensions revolved around the cold war and suspected subversions on the Homefront. Conservative and patriotic values ran high in the U.S. and America stood at the forefront of a new world order.
Refregier’s preliminary designs were envisioned and drafted in the late 30’s and early 40’s near the end of the Great Depression. World War II interrupted the completion of the commission and work was resumed in 1946 at the end of the war. In contrast to the political landscape after World War II, the artist painted California’s history in a frank, honest and judgmental interpretation that was inspired by the hardships of an earlier and depressed era. He was not preoccupied with the aggrandizement of our state and nation’s past. For many, his works were perceived as dark passages from regional history that questioned the nobility and grandeur of early settlers. Many considered the character and themes of these paintings “un-American”.
Significant attempts were made by conservative political forces to remove these murals. The artist is said to have worried that conservative “thugs” would come along in the middle of the night to destroy his masterpiece. However, San Franciscans rallied and the murals were saved. But the controversies surrounding this now preserved landmark continue to be an indelible part of San Francisco’s famous and infamous history.
Politics have always played a major role in attempts to record or destroy history. Art and history have been repeatedly put on trial throughout the ages. It’s happened many times before the McCarthy era challenges to the Rincon murals and it has happened many times since. That’s the inherent nature of art, particularly as it exists in the public realm.
Long before the Rincon Murals were challenged, Hitler’s vigorous attempts to eradicate the art, the history and the memory of all that displeased him were among the many atrocities associated with Germany’s Third Reich. More recently, the world was shocked in 2001 when the Taliban destroyed important monuments in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan because they were inconsistent with the Taliban’s own religious views and ideology. And in even more recent times, the scourge of ISIS has devastated the art world. Historians, preservationists and the world public at large are equally appalled by the destruction of long treasured antiquities in the Palmyra Valley and elsewhere throughout the Middle East The impact is best described by William Webber of the UK based Art Loss Registry. “If you’re going to eradicate someone’s identity, the best way is to eradicate their art”
It’s been said that censoring history is an act of cowardice It can come from the left as well as the right. In 2014, a feminist group in France rallied to have the iconic VJ Day statue of “The Kiss” destroyed because they found it offensive to the feminist agenda. And there are many in this country that still rally to destroy any vestiges of what remain of the Judeo-Christian heritage that has played a significant role in the development of our nation, as we know it today.
Almost thirty years have past since I restored the murals at Rincon Center. Irrespective of my own political inclinations, I’ve come to further appreciate Refregier’s honest attempts at conveying the darker sides of history. I view such attempts as something requisite in the achievement of a more enlightened society. His work remains as yet one more reminder that, “those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
In this understanding, I feel that the artist Anton Refregier and I are more alike than different, with a convergence of minds and ideologies from two polar ends of the political spectrum. As a politically conservative art conservator, I am as determined to honor and preserve the past as the socialist artist was to paint it. Any attempt to alter history is an affront on truth however it may be perceived and interpreted.
In the historic lobby of Rincon Center, stark and sometimes unpleasant truths associated with the American journey are displayed front and center. A corridor adjacent to the historic lobby leads to the newer atrium area where the more recent 1980’s paintings by artist Richard Hass adorn the walls. These newer additions to the old Rincon Annex Post Office were once referred to as “a monument to capitalism.” The Hass paintings depict the abundance and sense of well being often associated with the accomplishments of free enterprise and the American Dream. There are obvious contrasts and a distinct irony associated with the juxtaposition of these two very different works of art. But I believe that standing between them gives one a great sense of what it means to be uniquely American.
As conservators, historians and preservationists, we must adhere to our own distinct and unique version of the “Hippocratic” oath. Aside from our own personal and political proclivities, we are bound by obligation to honor the past and the truths associated with it. I would like to believe that Anton Refregier would agree.
The official theme of the joint 44th AIC Annual Meeting and 42nd CAC-ACCR Conference was “Emergency! Preparing for Disasters and Confronting the Unexpected in Conservation”, however, a series of talks diverged from the theme, discussing instead the role of the conservation profession in supporting social inequality and established colonial structures: Kelly McHugh’s was one such dark horse.
She began her talk with the disclaimer that her talk would contain much self-reflection. This proved a successful approach to a difficult topic, the marginalization of Native Americans within the United States of America (Canada’s crimes against First Nations groups were not addressed). By expressing her position within the framework of her own experiences, McHugh made her message approachable, sharing blame in the problems she brought to light. As McHugh noted, conversations on reconciliation can be difficult as they bring up paralyzing feelings of discomfort, anxiety, and guilt. She stressed that in addressing injustices, it may feel to Americans that the legitimacy of the origin myth of the USA as the Land of the Free is undermined – an idea expressed by Walter Echo-Hawk in his book, “In the Light of Justice”.
McHugh began by discussing Tellico Lake, TN where she and her family vacation. Until recently she was unaware that the lake, created as a result of the construction of the Tellico dam, covered two sacred Cherokee sites, Chota and Tanasi. The construction of the dam, which was delayed for years due to an endangered fish called the snail darter, was not hindered at all by the sacred status of the sites, which were later commemorated through the naming of golf courses and the creation of a lakeside memorial. Tying her talk into the overarching conference theme, McHugh pointed to the irony of those responsible memorializing destroyed sites lost through an intentional, man-made disaster. McHugh went on to emphasize the significance of her own ignorance of Chota and Tanasi as symptomatic of the societal blindness to aboriginal issues, which was particularly uncomfortable for her after 19 years of employment at the National Museum of the American Indian.
She then directed the audience’s attention to other sacred Native sites harmed in the interest of industry and tourism. She addressed the inadequacies of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, even noting that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 fails to give First Nations tribes the right to completely barre all disturbance of sacred sites. She highlighted one location successfully protected from development for an army training facility, Medicine Bluff, which was done so by culturally educating the judge in the case, by inviting him to the site and having him walk with a religious leader. She also cited current threats to Native American heritage, notably encroaching sea levels from climate, requiring the displacement of tribal villages.
Stressing the inherent connection between human rights and authority over cultural patrimony, McHugh showed the importance of generating awareness of these issues all the while not separating Native history from our own. McHugh called for true collaboration between museums and native communities, noting that NMAI was getting closer to such a relationship and highlighting other significant organizations like the School for Advanced Research and the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums. She suggested the use of listening sessions and the creation of collaborative collections care initiatives to allow for sharing in the responsibilities of problem-solving on equal ground.
Overall, the message McHugh delivered was an important one – that as conservators we need to do more to recognize and respect the essential connection between cultural heritage and community, that we cannot ignore the human element in favour of remaining a neutral observer to the struggle for recognition of human rights for First Nations peoples. There is no neutral position, inaction and ignorance only support the inequality founded on colonialism and racism. McHugh gave an important call to action: true collaboration or bust!
Stephanie Hornbeck wrapped up the morning OSG session with her talk, “Ivory: Recent Advances in its Identification and Stringent Regulation.” She set the stage by noting how international and U.S. laws were strengthened in 2014 to combat the rise in ivory trafficking, drawing the connection to conservators since we may be involved in the identification and sampling of ivory materials. It is important for us to be aware of the methods to identify ivory and of the new regulations that apply to it.
Stephanie presented some history about ivory and its use, including a detailed description on what ivory is and how it is formed. Stephanie carefully outlined the diagnostic features for identifying different types of ivory and included a host of images to illustrate her points along the way. Some excellent resources to help with this include Stephanie’s web article for the National Museum of African Art and the Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) website, including this page on identification. A point that Stephanie drove home is how critical it is to have comparative data when attempting to identify and unknown specimen. Photographs of morphological features and known reference material are essential tools to use. An additional aid is the use of UV light as a screening tool to classify the unknown as animal versus vegetal or synthetic. Animal ivories will fluoresce blue-white due to the presence of apatite, while other materials are likely to absorb or produce yellow or orange. Stephanie reminded the audience that the presence of Schreger lines is indicative of Proboscidean ivory, and the angle of the lines can help distinguish between mammoth and mastodon versus elephant. However, she also pointed out that the angle of the lines is variable depending on where along the tusk the lines are being examined. Beyond these visual tests, Stephanie also outlined analytical methods that require sampling. These included FTIR and DNA for identification, as well as isotope analysis, bomb-curve radiocarbon analysis, and the potential of measuring water ad/absorption as methods for possible dating.
From here, Stephanie shifted gears to talk about the ivory trade and new international, federal, and state regulations. She pointed out that the US is the second largest consumer of ivory behind China and that the ivory trade is often a cover for other illicit trade. Although ivory was already a highly regulated material since the 1976 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), these facts, along with the rapidly diminishing population levels of the elephant due to rampant poaching, have led to newer, tighter regulations. After an outline of the various laws and regulation that affect ivory, Stephanie explained that it is now illegal to buy or sell ivory of any age. Only well documented works that can prove a date of more than 100 years and ownership before 1977 can enter the US. The new requirements ask for species-specific identification and specific dating. These regulations are problematic because identifying and dating artifacts to those levels is difficult, if not impossible. The FWS has provided useful information on the new regulations here.
Because of time constraints, Stephanie was not able to fully delve into the implications for traveling exhibitions. She skipped over a case study in which documented ancient ivories owned by the Bolton Museum in Bolton, England were delayed at the Miami International Airport for four days in a tropical environment where climate controls were unknown. Following the new 2014 regulations, the local FWS agent wanted species specific identification of the ancient ivories, which was not readily proven in the existing documentation. That level of identification is also not possible to obtain without destructive analysis. Although ancient worked ivories should have been allowed as part of a traveling exhibition, and CITES permits were provided, the entry into the US was nevertheless delayed at great risk to cultural artifacts. For this reason, coupled with her long-standing research interest in ivory, Stephanie has joined a sub-committee to help develop an AIC position paper on the subject.
N.B. For information on the changes in regulations download: Hornbeck, S. 2016. “Ivory: identification and regulation of a precious material”. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. available via the AIC wiki.
In light of this year’s conference theme, Practical Philosophy or Making Conservation Work, the Sustainability Committee would like to highlight how something as intangible as climate change directly affects the practical side of conservation.
This is 1 of 3 in the series of blog posts that explores this relationship. In this one we ask the question “how has climate change affected conservators in the work they do?”
Climate change affects everyone, including conservators. For the past few years I’ve been researching sustainability and conservation. Making sustainability seem relevant on a practical level is one of the most challenging parts about convincing others to change their habits.
Much like damage to artifacts due to improper handling or prolonged light exposure, the consequences of climate change becomes more apparent once you see what you’ve been avoiding, the worst-case scenarios. What specific events have already happened where extreme weather and climate change negatively affected how conservators care for art and cultural heritage? Since this year’s conference is held in tropical Miami, this post focuses on weather-related water damage and how it affects conservators and the work they do.
It’s no surprise that floods, storms, and hurricanes have adversely affected many cultural institutions. While many storage facilities raise their lowest shelves a few inches off the ground, take into account the following examples as a cautionary tale of what could happen, even to the most prepared institution.
Photos of water-damaged artifacts at the National Guard Militia Museum.
Photo source: Ashley Peskoe | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com.
The National Guard Militia Museum in New Jersey experienced severe flood damage during Hurricane Sandy when five feet of water got into their collections storage site. The damage was extensive and difficult to assess. How do you assign value to irreplaceable photographs and handwritten letters? When the “conservation treatment for each large flag would cost between $20,000 to $30,000” how do you prioritize it over other objects? What about the “465 oral history interviews from veterans dating back to World War II, which got wet in the storm”? After the hurricane even the records of these oral histories “were glued to the floor,” said assistant curator Carol Fowler.
The flooded National September 11 Memorial Museum, 2012.
Photo Source: Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company.
At the same time the National September 11 Memorial Museum, then still under construction, was “filled with at least seven feet of water during the [Hurricane Sandy] storm.” The flooding had nearly immersed two fire trucks, while the symbolic last column, the steel cross, and the survivor’s stairway were all also partially submerged. And this damage happened after years of conservation and climate controlled storage.
The hurricane damaged Lone Star Flight Museum.
Photo Source: Property of the Experimental Aircraft Association.
Similarly in 2008 Hurricane Ike devastated the Lone Star Flight Museum “with 6 to 8 feet of saltwater.” While some of the planes were flown out in time, “all the aircraft that remained behind sustained some degree of damage [while] the restored Jeeps and other vehicles were under water.[…] The briny brew corroded their metal frames and engines and soaked their wooden ribs.” Not only planes were damaged but small artifacts as well – “Bits and pieces of various displays — flags, uniforms, photographs — were recovered from the muck. Most were not.” Even their repair shop, with specialty tools and equipment for aircraft repair was “all gone,” meaning immediate conservation work was severely limited. To make a bad situation worse, “the museum had no flood insurance, [so] it will depend heavily on donations to recover.” Larry Gregory, the museum’s president, stated “right now we’ve got to devote all our resources to staying in business,” so routine conservation and maintenance took a back seat to long-term recovery.
The flooded exterior of the River and Rowing Museum.
Photo Source: from the 2014 article “Weather forces museums to close” by Simon Stephens.
Even annual flooding can be unpredictable. Last year the River and Rowing Museum, the Spelthorne Museum, the Brocklands Museum, and the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, all in different parts of England, had to temporarily close due to rising flood waters. Catherine Yoxall, marketing manager of the River and Rowing Museum, said that while the museum was lucky since it is purposely built on stilts, “our problem is that we are unable to get anywhere near the building and it simply wouldn’t be safe to expect our staff to try to get in.”
Photos of the 2008 Iowa flood during the recovery process (left, center) and during the flood itself (right).
Photo Source: © 2015 National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library.
In 2008 the Iowa Flood flooded the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library with 10 feet of water causing between eight and eleven million dollars worth of damage to five museum-owned buildings, including 20-25% of their collection. This included “6,000 volumes [of books and] one thousand sixty-seven flood-damaged artifacts.” And the damage occurred after many days of flood preparation where much of their collection was taken off site or moved to a higher floor within the building. All told the museum will need to be rebuilt, costing an additional $25 million.
Even run of the mill thunderstorms can cause incredible damage. The Hurnonia Museum, a local history museum in Midland, Ontario, had survived two back-to-back thunderstorms in August 2014. Since “the entire floor of the museum was covered in an inch of water,” it fared relatively well in comparison to the museums previously mentioned, except for the 19th century rug that was on the floor as well as other low to the ground objects. This is especially troubling because the small museum had a new roof installed just a few months prior after a leak had caused its ceiling to collapse. And with their modest budget they were just hoping “to earn what we earned (last year) or better,” which after closures and emergency costs they could not do.
Conservation as a profession is a balance between the practical and the theoretical knowledge. Climate change and its effects should be directly tied to emergency preparedness and preventive conservation, and thus to our professional ethics and mandate in that our goal is to care for objects in perpetuity. The practical side of our ethical decision-making is often understated, if even mentioned at all. Perhaps this is because there is no tangible, immediate reward to disaster prevention, or perhaps it is because the process is cumulative and ongoing. In either case it is none the less part of the foundation of what we do as conservation professionals.
When thinking about climate change and conservation, we can take Huronia Museum executive director Nahanni Born’s words to heart, “when you take (an artifact) in, you promise to take care of it forever.” How have you and your organization been negatively affected by climate change? What have you done to mitigate this? What actions can you take, large or small, to have a positive, cumulative effect to mitigate climate change’s effect on your work?
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org write in the comments.
Starting today, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) is conducting an online survey on “direct care,” an issue of extreme relevance to conservators and one that could have a major impact on the future of the conservation field.
As most conservators are aware, deaccessioning museum objects is a complicated topic. Currently the AAM’s Code of Ethics says: “disposal of collections through sale, trade or research activities is solely for the advancement of the museum’s mission. Proceeds from the sale of nonliving collections are to be used consistent with the established standards of the museum’s discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.”
While it is commonly understood that funds from deaccessioning should not be used for normal operating expenses, what does the term “direct care” mean? Does “direct care” mean conservation, and if so, could these funds be spent on conservation treatments? Or does “direct care” only mean preventive conservation? Either way, does “direct care” include conservation salaries? Because the term “direct care” is vague, the AAM has established the Direct Care Task Force to clarify the term and make new recommendations. Of course, each museum may have its own, more specific, guidelines and procedures. And while the AASLH also allows for money from the deaccessioning to be spent on “preservation,” the AAMD has stricter guidelines, allowing only for money to be spent on new acquisitions.
What does this have to do with conservation? If the definition of “direct care” were expanded to explicitly include conservation, more funding would potentially be available for conservation. But deaccessioning is already ethically challenging; conservators don’t want to be put in a position of seeming to encourage deaccessioning or to violate our own code of ethics, with our primary goal being the preservation of cultural property.
This important issue calls for dialogue – both among conservators and with our museum colleagues. AAM’s task force unfortunately does not include any conservators, so we must express our voice in other ways.
AAM Direct Care Task Force
AAM Code of Ethics:
Conservators have an uneasy relationship with forgery. Often knee-jerk reactions arise: outrage, indignation, feelings of being duped, and sometimes a closet admiration of a particular craft skill. While certainly valid, and generally true, they can be somewhat of a conversation stopper. Deep down, I find myself a bit envious that forgers get so much media attention, and that this attention is generally overwhelmingly sympathetic. Conservation is just as interesting, right?
Some examinations of philosophic aspects forgery within the field of conservation include AIC’s 2007 Annual Meeting, “Fakes, Forgeries and Fabrications” and tangential papers like conservation rock star Salvador Munoz Vinas’s 2011 “The Frankenstein Syndrome” in Ethics and Critical Thinking in Conservation. Once, I discovered a forged portion of a Gutenberg Bible I was working on, thankfully it belonged to an institutional client, rather than a private one. Since we spend a lot of time looking at very small things, maybe it is difficult to change perspective, take the optivisor off, and look at this issue a bit more broadly.
The movie Art and Craft tells the story of Mark Landis, a contemporary forger. It is an entirely enjoyable film, the directors allow Landis to show and tell his story with little interference. The film clearly articulates his reasons and motivations for forgery while not becoming overly romantic. Landis, a diagnosed schizophrenic, is shown visiting his therapists and at home, generally watching tv and copying pictures from art books at the same time. He is quite likely more a victim of “the system” more than someone taking advantage of it. A couple of times he is shown engaging in quotidian activities; eating a dinner of melba toast dipped into a container of margarine, for example.
Mark Landis. Source: <http://i.imgur.com/XzrQz4K.jpg>
Early on, the film reveals his primary motivation for creating forgeries: he wants to be a philanthropist. But he realizes quite quickly it is hard to be a philanthropist without money or art to give away; he had to create the art in order to distribute it. Also, he liked being treated like a philanthropist, and he admits becoming addicted to it. Who wouldn’t? So he keeps making more forgeries. The film delves into his personality, much of which seems to be strongly influenced by a tv that always seemed to be on. He is self-aware of these influences, and tells others of their source. For example, he started smoking because he saw characters in 1940’s movies smoking to calm down, so he thought it would help calm his nerves, and curb his compulsion to pace.
The film emphasizes the naturalness, almost an innocence, of his desire to copy works of art. The motivations behind many forgers (which are generally not pecuniary by the way) are often egotistically motivated: proving oneself equal to the great artists or “getting even” with the art experts by exposing their ignorance. In addition to his philanthropic desires, Landis also simply likes to copy things, again because it calms him down. Repetitive hand motions and using hand-eye coordination is comforting to him. Sound familiar?
The antagonist in this film is a Matthew Leininger, a museum registrar, who originally noticed a number of identical paintings in numerous museums, and over the years slowly closed in on Landis. When seeing some of the paintings, the audience wonders how they could have fooled anyone. Many are not of Eric Hebborn or Elmyr de Hory caliber, though Landis is certainly capable of finely crafted work. Many of his forgeries are a color photocopy of a work with acrylic medium smeared on the surface, to resemble brushstrokes. The materials he uses are all standard off the shelf art supplies from Michaels, and the frames from Home Depot, though he slightly antiques them. He often photocopies a certificate of sale from a major auction house or defunct gallery to aid in establishing provenance and adheres this to the back.
The Mona Lisa, Mark Landis, 2014. On view at Think Coffee, NYC. Photo by Jeff Peachey.
In Think Coffee, a coffee shop near the Angelica Film Center in NYC where I saw the film, an original Mark Landis painting hangs. In this case, he has signed his own name, and the price tag is $25,000. When I saw it, there was no red dot on the label. The painting is hanging in an ordinary wall space above a seat. I hesitate to call it a forgery, since it would be impossible, I think, for anyone to confuse this with the real thing. It looks like a color photocopy with acrylic medium and some painted additions, though the light is pretty low. Is it a forgery of a forgery? Or a copy of a copy? Or just a photocopy with some paint on it?
Landis is quite cavalier concerning his lack of interest in technical details. In an online reddit interview he dismissively leaves it to others. “And as far as artists that use brushstrokes, it’s something I never really gave much thought to. Experts supposedly can tell things like that, an expert is just someone who knows a great deal about something and sometimes he’s right.” And what does it say about our culture that many museum professionals don’t bother to look closely enough to tell a photocopy from a painting? Is it the result of looking at most things reproduced through a computer screen? To be fair, the film does show other examples of his work, drawing and paintings, that are very skillfully executed.
Typical of Landis, he spins a variety conflicting press reports about his work, even the copy of Mona Lisa on display. Was it was painted in 90 minutes as is generally reported or did it take an entire weekend? If sold, will the proceeds benefit the museum in his hometown, the Lauren Rogers Museum? The museum’s marketing director denies this is true. Again, according to the reddit interview, the most one of his paintings has sold for is $800.
Here we enter an interesting terrain: Landis, who by copying so earnestly, and seemingly created by his media environment, may convolute some of the Benjaminian notions of the aura of authenticity and the copy. He compulsively recreates copies of copies, over and over, quite likely unable to stop despite protests and essentially being caught. Landis himself admits he has not seen most of the works he copies, only reproductions. There seems to be no authentic work to be copied in his world. He becomes a Warholian performance artist, quite possibly the value of his work in is the transactions, and the changes in perception of the value of his work: genuine, forgery, doesn’t matter?
Landis does not confine himself to assume the persona of a wealthy philanthropist, there are references to at least three other characters he portrays. In one hilarious scene (shown in the trailer below), he is dressed as a catholic priest, and shown blessing a unknowing recipient.
A question that comes up in the movie that is often asked of forgers—in fact, sometimes restorers and conservators— is why don’t you create your own work? Landis is charasticly straightforward when he replies that he doesn’t have anything he wants to paint, he just likes copying others work. It is hard for the viewer to resent him. Indeed, he wants come clean, and earn a living based on his skills, as his website selling copies of photographs indicates. A charcoal or pencil drawing starts at $250, and a painting in acrylic or oil is $650. There is an interesting caveat you must click: “I certify that the photos provided are owned by me and do not represent an attempt to commit a forgery of copyrighted work.” Good idea, an invitation for more forgery, or a bit of bravado?
I left the movie feeling his forgeries were not only harmless, but in fact a positive thing: he really was making people happy by giving them gifts, and he seemed to get pleasure from it. What more could we ask from a transaction? Leininger, the registrar, is presented as the killjoy. And even though Landis has tentatively agreed not to gift forgeries to institutions, the movie ends with him headed in a new direction, with similar ethical questions and even less accountability.
Forgers and magicians are experts at misdirection. Landis even compares himself to a magician at one point, when someone asked how he painted his Mona Lisa. “Well, it’s like a magic trick you know. If I told people, it wouldn’t be worth anything anymore.” Has Landis manipulating the director to miss the essential elements of his ethical, if not legal crimes? Could this entire film be considered a meta-forgery, where the viewer is the one duped? The thought even crossed my mind that he might produce obvious forgeries in order to continue producing more sophisticated ones.
Art and Craft provides an entertaining and engaging conversation starter for a number of issues surrounding forgery.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 2007. This extremely important essay comes up in virtually every discussion of forgery.
F is for Fake Movie. Dir. Orson Wells. 1974. A tangled web involving Elymr de Hory and Clifford Irving.
Hebborn, Eric. Confessions of a Master Forger: The Updated Autobiography. London: Cassell, 1997. Regardless how you feel about him, he is a skilled and entertaining writer with a fascinating history.
Hebborn, Eric. The Art Forger’s Handbook. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1997. This is a how-to book.
Irving, Clifford. Fake!: The Story of Elmyr de Hory the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969. Irving’s interest in forgery became more than academic; he later faked an autobiography of Howard Hughes. Is forgery a contagious disease?
Meyers, Robin and Michael Harris, eds. Fakes & Frauds: Varieties of Deception in Print and Manuscript. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1996. A collection of essays dealing with forged books and documents.
Schwartz, Hillel. The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles. New York: Zone Books, 1996. A lengthy examination of twins, doppelgängers, self-portraits, seeing double, ditto, reenactment, replication and more in 565 pages.
Radnoti, Sandor. Fake: Forgery and Its Place in Art, trans. Ervin Dunai. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999. An important philosophical take on forgery.
Any other favorites?
Those who have beheld the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians at the American Museum of Natural History and its extraordinary “totem poles” will instantly recognize the potential scope of any study or treatment of such massive artifacts.
These objects are housed in the earliest wing of the museum, curated at its inception by Franz Boas, “the father of American Anthropology”, who organized the early acquisitions of the museum according to a revolutionary argument: that of “cultural relativism” in opposition to a chauvinistic, social-Darwinist organization that put “primitive” peoples at the bottom of an evolutionary tree, the pinnacle of which was white America. Today, this hall holds a landmarked status and remains relatively unchanged, as the poles are very hard to move.
Ten years ago, a renovation of the hall was proposed. Although the recession thwarted plans, the objects were still in need of stabilization and aesthetic improvements. Because this project—from its inception, through the research, testing, and execution stage, was so expansive—Samantha Alderson reminded her audience that her talk could only represent an overview of a four-year process. Those interested in a specific aspect of the project can look forward to in-depth, forthcoming publications.
One of the more important aspects of the research phase, and a professional obligation that is indispensable to the curation and conservation of native materials, was the consideration of ethical issues and provenance information. Most of these pieces entered the collection between the 1880s and the 1920s, and the majority has been on continual, open display since their arrival. Their presence in AMNH’s collection is widely acknowledged to be ethically complicated in itself, representing an era of unscrupulous dealing in Northwest Coast artifacts. (To read more about “Indians and about their procurable culture,” consult Douglas Cole’s, “Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts,” about the coincidence of a taste for these native artifacts and the establishment of many of the country’s foremost natural history collections. (p.xi)]
The carvings, including the carved columns most commonly described as ”totem poles,” would have had numerous functions within their originating cultures: house frontal poles holding entry portals to buildings, interior house posts, welcome figures, memorial poles, and mortuary posts [For a technical study on these types of carvings, please consult “Melissa H. Carr. “A Conservation Perspective on Wooden Carvings of the Pacific Northwest Coast.” Wooden Artifacts Group Postprints. 1993.].
To further hone their understanding of provenance, the 2009 CCI “Caring for Totem Poles” workshop in Alert, Canada, allowed the authors to travel through British Columbia with curatorial consultants, native carvers, and native caretakers, in order to study the techniques of manufacture. It was also important to keep abreast of the expectations of the native communities that might be borne out over the course of any treatment intervention or re-installation campaign.
The original aim of this project was to provide structural stability to those carvings which exhibited highly deteriorated surfaces caused by the weathering and biodeterioration in their original environment. These instabilities were often exacerbated by inappropriate environmental conditions and restoration interventions in the museum. The most significant issue requiring treatment was the presence of wood rot, insects, and biological growth, present in the original environment and continuing to run their course.
Although climate control was installed in 1995, soot from the age of coal heaters and lamps still blanketed the inaccessible areas of the objects. Dust from visitor traffic also dulled them, as the hall is adjacent to the entrance to the IMAX theatre. Routine and well-intentioned cleaning was ineffective against a century of accumulated grime and dust and was causing surface loss.
As there is no barrier between the objects and the visitor, touching has caused burnishing and scratching. The unfinished wood readily absorbs skin oils; and graffiti and adhered chewing gum had also become a most-unfortunate problem.
Early interventions after acquisition had caused condition problems of their own, as old fills had a hardness or density that is inappropriate for soft, weathered wood. These fill materials were only becoming more ugly, unstable, crumbly, and cracked with age.
All of these factors, taken together, provided a huge impetus for treatment.
To begin the treatment-planning stage, the conservators at AMNH performed examinations under visible and UV radiation and mapped the observed conditions and materials using a streamlined iPad-based documentation protocol. In some cases the restoration materials observed provided evidence of institutional and condition history. Although there were almost no previous treatment records of these objects, comparison with archival photographs of many of the objects showed the rate of deterioration since acquisition and provided clues as to dates of interventions and installation history.
In summary of the object-treatment stage, vacuums and sponges were first used in an attempt to reduce some of the dinginess of the surface and to increase the legibility of the painted designs. The many resinous and waxy coatings had trapped so much dust, however, that this treatment did not always have a satisfactory result.
The question of solvent toxicity held sway in all aspects of treatment, as operations were completed in makeshift spaces outside of the lab, due to the size of the objects; these areas had no fume-extraction infrastructure. Luckily, plaster fills could be softened with a warm-water-and-ethanol mixture and carved out.
Butvar B-98 and Paraloid B-72 were selected as potential consolidants and adhesives. A 5-10% Butvar B-98 solution in ethanol (i.e. without the toluene component for safety concerns) was used for surface stabilization, and Paraloid B-72 in acetone was used for adhesion of splinters and detached fragments.
Fills were designed using different materials depending on the location on the object. These were intended to reduce damage during installation, display, and regular maintenance. If the fill was not visible, shapes were cut from Volara, beveled, and adhered in place with Paraloid B-72 along the edges. These were often necessary on the tops of the poles to cover the deep voids of deteriorated wood. Some losses were back-filled with tinted glass micro-balloon mixtures of different grades and different resin-to-balloon ratios where appropriate. As some paints were solvent-sensitive, certain fills required the use of Paraloid B-67. The final fill type was a removable epoxy-bulked fill to compensate for deep losses in visible areas. These areas were first filled with polyethylene foam to prevent the fill from locking in. The edges of the fill area to be cast were protected by tamping down teflon (plumber’s) tape which conforms nicely to the wooden surface. West System 105 Epoxy Resin—with “fast” 205, “slow” 206, or “extra-slow” 209 hardeners—was used in different proportions to 3M glass microspheres and pigments to give fill material with various hardness, curing-times, textures, and colors (See Knauer’s upcoming publication in ICOM-CC Warsaw 2013 for more details). This method is notable for its invisibility, its reversibility, and its rejection of phenolic micro-balloons, which are an unstable and unsuitable and were historically used for such a wood fill merely for their brown color. Once cured, the bulked-epoxy (and the plumber’s tape) were removed and the fills were then tacked into place with B-72 to produce an aesthetically pleasing and protective cap.
Many losses which were previously filled were left unfilled, as would have been the case it they had been collected and treated today. Crack fills were incised so as to retain the appearance of a (smaller) crack.
Once the surface and structure was stabilized with the consolidation and filling operations, the team turned their attention to the various paint films to be cleaned. Many of these were proteinaceous but some were more similar to house paints. This data was consistent with the ethnographic findings and with current native practice. No preparatory layers were used, and the pigment layers were often very lean.
PLM, XRF, and SEM-EDS, as well as UV-FL imaging, thin sections, and analysis with FTIR was undertaken. Some binder analysis was also possible, but this was complicated by historical treatments. Interpretation of epi-fluorescence microscopy results was also thwarted by the presence of multiple coatings, the inter-penetration, -dissolution, and bleed-through of layers. As many as four different types of coatings were identified, and understanding and addressing the condition issues caused by these coatings became a primary concern. Cellulose Nitrate was often applied to carvings in the early 20th century. Whether this was to refurbish or protect, it has developed into a dark-brown layer which is alternately hazy and glossy and which obscured the original surface appearance. Lower regions evidenced PVA or PVAc on top of the Cellulose Nitrate. Shellac and dammar are present in isolated locations, as is an orange resin which eluded identification (even when analyzed with GCMS).
Although identification of these coatings was attempted, removal was not originally planned due to the difficulties designing a solvent system for its reduction, considering the variation in sensitivities, the interpenetration of the layers, and the unknown condition of the original paint films beneath. This plan changed when the poles were deinstalled for construction.
The treatment design was largely aided by the isolation of four house posts in the collection made by Kwakwaka’wakw artist Arthur Shaughnessy.
Commissioned by AMNH in 1923, these had never been installed outdoors but which had been coated in the same manner and exhibited in the same space. This allowed for the development of controlled methods for coating reduction.
A Teas table (or Teas chart) was used to identify potential solvents or solvent mixtures, which were tested over every color and monitored for any leaching or swelling. These initial tests were deemed unsuccessful.
In areas without paint, film reformation with acetone reduced haziness or glossiness. Where the coating was completely removed, the wood was often left with an over-cleaned appearance which necessitated some coating redistribution with MBK, MEK, and propylene glycol. Wherever possible, gels were used to reduce the exposure to toxic solvents. In painted areas, the large variation in solvent sensitivity, the inconsistency of media binders, the varying porosity of the wood, and the changing direction of the wood grain required that the conservators work inch-by-inch. DMSO, a component of “safe” stripper, and NMP were controllable over certain colors but caused considerable swelling.
February 2012, the museum saw the reinstallation of the Shaughnessy poles, marking the effective conclusion of the testing period and the successful management of a challenging triage situation by conservation staff.
It was Kwakwaka‘wakw artists like Arthur Shaughnessy who kept carving traditions active when the Canadian government prohibited the potlatch ceremony in 1885. The ban was lifted in 1951, after AMNH’s acquisition of the house posts.
The completion of treatment represents an important opportunity to educate the public: Although these monumental carvings are exhibited in a historic wing of the museum, we need to dust them off and remember that these carvings represent very, active traditional practices and communities.
There is still the need to develop more systematic solvent strategies, as well as to consult with a paintings conservator. But it is clear that these objects stand to look much improved after the grime and coatings are removed or reduced and the objects are thoughtfully reintegrated with a well-designed fill system. Thanks to the remarkable talents of the AMNH team, these stately creations are finally commanding the respect they deserve.
Hall of Northwest Coast Indians :: AMNH
From the Bench: These Face Lifts Require Heavy Lifting :: IMLS
Arthur Shaughnessy house post carvings reinstalled following conservation treatment (February 2012) :: AMNH
Changing Approaches to the Conservation of Northwest Coast Totem Poles :: Reed College
Andrew Todd (1998). “Painted Memory, Painted Totems,” In Dorge, Valerie and F. Carey Howlett (eds.), Painted Wood: History and Conservation (pp. 400-411). Proceedings of a symposium organized by the Wooden Artifacts Group of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works and the Foundation of the AIC, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1994. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust.
A Brief History of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition :: AMNH
Part two of the Thursday May 30th collections care session started with a brief recap of Round 1 by Collections Care Network Chair Joelle Wickens. Introducing Round 2’s speakers, Kristen Overbeck Laise of Heritage Preservation and James Reilly of the Image Permanence Institute, CCN editor Rob Waller presented the session’s aims to offer opposing views on the role of standards in guiding collections care decisions.
In her talk titled Importance of Standards and Guidelines to Inform Preventive Conservation Initiatives in Museums, Kristen Overbeck Laise underlined the importance and benefits of collections care standards as ways of focusing performance goals, educating and motivating museum staff, and highlighting conservation’s role as part of a larger museum context. Laise provided a compelling argument in favor of the adherence to standards by pointing to guidelines cited in the American Alliance of Museums’ core documents, which include a collections management policy (http://www.aam-us.org/resources/assessment-programs/core-documents/documents). She also pointed out that museums accredited by AAM tend to have stronger collections care policies. However, Laise did note that the committee who oversees AAM accreditation is made up primarily of museum directors, rather than other museum professionals such as conservators – a surprise to me and I am sure others in the audience. Laise cited two other organizations who promote collections care standards, including the American Association for State and Local History (see their Stewardship of Collections Standards workbook online: http://www.aaslh.org/), as well as Collections Trust, a UK charity whose goal is to be a leader in the management and use of collections and technology in museums, libraries, and archives by 2015 (http://www.collectionstrust.org.uk/). In all Laise made clear that collections care standards are valued by the professional organizations that write the guidelines for best practices, and are considered important points of credibility and accountability for cultural institutions.
In his talk titled Standards Make us Myopic: We Focus on Specific Values at the Expense of Real Issues, James Reilly of the Image Permanence Institute argued that such prescriptive standards do not necessarily reflect the real needs of collections. Reilly provided an amusing analogy in the form of a Gary Larson cartoon (http://s173.photobucket.com/user/spn_imgs/media/blahblah.jpg.html), alluding to the fact that we tend to oversimplify the statements that are made in environmental standards publications such as Thomson 1978, 1986. The resulting De Facto standards we set for ourselves, Reilly argues, have not evolved over time, and have been applied to collections where they might not be appropriate. He also pointed to the fact that these publications were made before certain measurement technologies –like digital dataloggers – were available. Reilly points to what is important – actual documents, measurements, and the known vulnerabilities of specific collections – and to future trends such as risk management, and more active environmental management. Reilly offers PAS (Publicly Available Specification) 198: 2012 as an example of how standards are being increasingly used; in this specification, the manager is asked to prioritize from a list of risks and mechanisms of decay, based on their understanding of the needs and vulnerabilities of their collection (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/about/environmental-standard.htm). In short, according to Reilly, standards are meant to inform us, but it is up to us to determine how to interpret and apply them.
The afternoon round of talks and subsequent group discussions were quite engaging, thanks to the compelling arguments made by both Laise and Reilly. I came away with a sense that there is truth to both sides – that standards do keep us focused on the fundamental importance of collections care, but that the decisions we make on how to care for collections are, with good reason, based increasingly on data and observation.