AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting-Outreach in Paintings Session: The Dessemination of Information Outside and the Field and Within, May 10, “Conservation, Engineering and Materials — Reinventing the Wheel?” by William Wei

William Wei, Senior Conservation Scientist at the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, gave a compelling and entertaining presentation about how art conservators and historians and the scientific community: scientists, chemists and material engineers communicate with each other.  Bill used a very personal style (walking onto the floor and just talking to us rather than standing at the podium) and humor (like the hysterically screaming man graphic) to make the point that, many times, by not doing a little research into the mechanism that we are describing and the proper terminology used we end up unnecessarily reinventing the wheel, that is, wasting a lot of time.

 Wei, a mechanical engineer with a PhD in metals with 15 years of experience in conservation science focused on the perceptions, myths and misconceptions that arise in that age-old, left brain vs. right brain breakdown in communication between the scientific and artistic communities, “What are they talking about?”  While a conservator may be choosing a fabric for a loose liner he/she might consider weight or weave while an engineer will be considering factors such as the thermal expansion coefficient, that is, using mechanical properties terminology. The conservator may not distinguish the difference between stress and strain, tension and stiffness or have an understanding of what level of vibration is allowable.   The engineer comes to the table, however, with a clear understanding of engineering facts regarding mechanical properties: stress is not the same as force, stress & strain are related, tension is not stiffness and the effects of vibration are cumulative.

 The author was not so much chiding the conservation community for ignorance of material science and testing as pleading with us to do enough homework to formulate the right question.  He used several examples to make his point. Two metal rods: the microphone stand and a pen…which is stronger? The answer depends on mechanical properties.  Stress = Force/area.  Size doesn’t matter!  The force required to break the stand might be less than that required to break the pen.  When testing adhesives, how does the application method affect the results? Are there bubbles, for example?  Can you simply sew the slashed Barnett Newman painting, CATHEDRA back together? No. You need the stiffness of a lining and the lining fabrics have to have similar stiffness: Stiffness=Stress/strain. Tension does not equal stiffness.

Although most painting conservators have an intuitive sense of these principles, I believe the author’s point was that we often do not articulate our needs using the correct terminology.  We may even use elaborate mechanisms or equipment to measure vibration or dust accumulation when simpler, more straightforward and practical models would suffice.

 We need to talk, the author emphasized, reinvent as we learn and redefine words.  He stated some guidelines to accomplish these goals.

 1) Nothing is simple but it can be simply be explained and understood

2) Conservators must be willing to learn and read about problem

3) Engineers & Material Scientists must be willing to translate

4) We all must be aware of language; we must be bilingual

How  does the wheel work?  Do we really need a new wheel?

Wei went on to describe some of the pitfalls in terminology misuse of abuse.  In some cases nano is relevant.  However in his example of climate change, is
a change of 1-2 degrees over 50 years relevant to artwork as it is definitely is relevant to an increase in climatic disasters?

Finally, Wei pondered whether in the fields of conservation, engineering & materials, are we creating value?   I might take slight exception to the author’s notion that restoration is recreating art, as it is but, as most of us learned, early  on, the reason we call our field conservation  is to emphasize the preservative nature of our work, not the remaking of art.  I agree that, clearly, we do create value by increasing our understanding of objects cultural significance through scientific research.  Wei’s call to arms was inspirational.  There are solutions looking for problems, we just need to ask the right questions.  In so doing, we need to have awareness of different professional backgrounds; communication and understanding leads to better solutions.  Outreach, he said, “is not just broadcasting, it’s receiving too [there needs to be] a Socratic dialog.”