Swabbing away the varnish in the basement

When one is reading a work of fiction not specifically concerned with art conservation or conservators, one sometimes comes across a casual description that seems to set back the public image of the field by decades. The most recent one I encountered came early in Michael Cunningham’s 2010 novel, By Nightfall. Peter, an art dealer, mulling over his career, says to himself : “He’s an art history guy, maybe he should have become …what? … a conservator, say, one of those museum-basement people who spend their lives swabbing away the varnish and overpaint, reminding themselves (and eventually the world) that the past was garish and bright…”    With all of the thoughtful coverage that conservation projects have received in the popular press,  hadn’t we thought that the field had once and for all come above ground in the public’s mind .