Christel Pesme, a PhD student in the History of Art at the University of Paris presented a paper entitled “Museum Agency on the Integrity of Art” on the topic listed in the Annual Meeting program. She explained the change in title as a constant occurrence as she is still actively developing her thesis. Her work examines the impact of conservation and the execution of agency on the work Homogen Infiltration für Kontzertflügel by Joseph Beuys, 1966. Owned by the Centre Georges Pompidou, several phases of conservation were undertaken between 1976 and 1992 that had tremendous impact on both the work and the artist. The work as she discusses it consists of three independent, stand alone works: the piano, the original wax earplugs, and the original felt fabric, now hanging. In order to help the audience understand the implications of the work, Christel Pesme provided a brief background on the Centre Georges Pompidou, including its dates and mission statement, which involved the democratization of contemporary art. Her thesis and presentation pursue a rethinking of the role of the artist, ownership, and the role of cultural institutions.
Christel Pesme paper presents several phases of intent and interest in the Centre Georges Pompidou’s conservation and curatorial approaches. The initial exhibition of the work in 1976 was emblematic of the center and its goals as expressed through its mission statement. The first of four treatments occurred from December 1976 to January 1977. In collaboration between the conservators and the artist, the red crosses were removed and cleaned, and then sewn back on by the artist. The second treatment occurred in 1979 with the mechanical reinforcement of the felt in opposition to the artist’s preference and the meaning of the piece. The use of metals isolated and contained the work in a way that was unnatural. Despite the artist’s protests, the conservators at the centre said that the treatment was necessary if the piece were to travel to NY for an exhibit as the artist wanted, and so the treatment was done. After returning to the centre from NY, the piece had been damaged and a so a new room was built to house the piece in the optimal environment. The third treatment occurred between 1981 and 1984 – the records do not allow for a precise date. At this point the felt was reversed, “like a sleeve,” and the inside was shown without any involvement of the artist. The fourth treatment was more an “intervention” as described by Christel Pesme. From December 1984 to January 1985, the felt was removed from the piano and kept separate. A new envelope was made and put on. This intervention was demanded by the artist at a meeting established to discuss a new Beuys acquisition. He provided sketches for how the pieces were to be treated and then re-displayed.
For Christel Pesme, the conservation history of the piece exemplifies the decision making process that surrounds the practicality of the care and display of items in cultural institutions. Both the conservators and the curators made ethical decisions according to their field and goals. The changes in style and approach to the four phases of treatments corresponds to contemporary shifts of the centre’s mission statement, and more specifically to a particular director who was involved in the museum from 1981 to 1991. The affect of agency on the piece included alteration of the conservation methods, museum display, and the work’s actual interpretation. Following the 1985 dismantling of the work, it lost its original intent and definition. From this case, extreme as she admits it is, she hopes that conservators will learn that it is important for them to mitigate curatorial involvement in art but also that the very large role played by the cultural institution and it corresponding mission statement is realized. Conservators are not just bound by their own code of ethics, but also by the expectations of the museum in which they work.