“Identity Crisis Critical identity: the future of conservation and the role of AIC in its development”

It’s not often that conservators and conservation scientists have a chance to sit down and think about the theory behind our work. Usually the plethora of tasks we face each day gets in the way. Today, Dr. George Wheeler, Columbia University, treats us to a lively lecture on the theory of conservation.

He opens his discussion by talking about the growing pains of the profession. AIC has come through a difficult time with the recent unsuccessful efforts towards certification. He feels that there were lessons to be learned here as we attempt to define ourselves, now and in the future.

Wheeler structures his presentation around “four books and a journal” in a take-off of four weddings and a funeral. He began the discourse with the book, Theory of Restoration, (2005 English translation) by Cesare Branch. In the book, Branch states “restoration is carried out in order to reestablish the critical text of the work of art. . .” Thus all that we do should be defined by the need to reestablish the artwork. Wheeler feels that another important insight from this Italian scholar was the concept that the work of art is recognized as a physical object with dual historical and aesthetic value to be transmitted to the future. Wheeler also points out that only the material of a work of art is restored. We cannot restore a spirit of a work of art.

Next, Wheeler discusses issues in the definition of conservation, based on the work, Contemporary Theory of Conservation, by Salvador Munoz Vinas (2005). He contrasts the AIC definition of art conservation with one offered by Munoz Vinas. AIC’s definition of conservation is “The profession devoted to the preservation of cultural property for the future.” Munoz Vinas states that conservation as we know it today is a complex activity. Wheeler thinks conservation is about defining and developing our activities over and above the professionalism of the job. Another important point that is made is the uncomfortable relationship between conservators and conservation scientists. Conservators mustn’t look to scientists for validation in what they do. Instead, they should look within for authority to guide their actions.

The third book that Wheeler highlights is Securing the Past, by Paul Eggert. Eggert who is an English professor, explores underlying theories behind the different arts and practices of restoring historic objects and texts. Wheeler notes that a key issue addressed in the book is the subject-object relationship. Ultimately, we must define the boundary between who we are and what we work on.

Wheeler introduces us to the journal, FutureAnterior by way of shifting preservation and conservation away from nostalgic antiquarianism towards active involvement. Again, the emphasis is on our actions in relation to the artwork.

Conservation Principles, Dilemmas, and Uncomfortable Truths, a compilation by Alison Richmond, is the fourth book highlighted in the presentation. Within these pages, Wheeler chooses to quote Jonathan Ashley Smith, stating that conservation is in its adolescence. We can’t become a grown up profession simply by saying we are grown up. We cannot mature without the growing pains.

Wheeler concludes by telling us that we must mobilize the creative activity within this organization to determine where we are going in the future.

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