41st Annual Meeting – Objects Session, May 31, “Intersecting Conservation Approaches to Ethnographic and Contemporary Art: Ephemeral Art at the National Museum of African Art” by Stephanie E. Hornbeck

In this paper, Stephanie discusses similarities between conserving ethnographic and contemporary works of art. She includes previous discussions about the two types of conservation and the variety of viewpoints associated with them, demonstrated, visually, through case studies of treatments of both traditional and contemporary art.
Stephanie briefly discussed her training, which began at the Guggenheim before working at more focused ethnographic collections. She has worked for several years for the National Museum of African Art (NMAA). This museum originally housed just traditional arts, but, in the 1990’s, also began collecting contemporary art. They now have a collection of over 600 contemporary works of art, and I believe she said this is the largest collection of contemporary African art in the United States (or the world?). She and her colleagues Steve Mellor and Dana Moffett have found that these contemporary works, while using materials common to non-African contemporary art, also draw upon materials from traditional African arts.
Both traditional arts and contemporary art are often composed of ephemeral material (sometimes by design, sometimes not) – composite media, repurposed materials, and inherently fragile materials. Conservation is often directly opposed to ephemeral art. While Stephanie proposed that this statement has been addressed many times previously, there are as many different opinions on how to deal with contemporary art and ephemeral materials. The opinions posed in this paper are Stephanie’s own.
Stephanie presented a number of case studies to discuss their approach to ephemeral materials as well as to highlight similarities between traditional and contemporary art. The first examples were of a traditional, wooden artifact by Olówè of Isè, and a contemporary ceramic piece, Untitled 1, by Magdelene Odundo, in 1994. In the former, there was a darkening of the surface of the bowl, which conservators thought might be a resin applied later in its life and might be inappropriate to the artifact. Analysis showed that the dark material was in fact a gum-carbohydrate mixture – one that could have been historic. The artist, Olówè, died in 1938, however, and could not be interviewed about it.
Magdelene Odundo’s Untitled 1 is a beautiful, pristine ceramic vessel with a rich, earthy-red and smooth surface. What soon became apparent, were areas of lime within the clay body that would swell and cause the ceramic above to pop off, resulting in a pit with a white dot in the middle (the lime). [This is exactly what occurs in pottery from Southwest United States.] These areas mar the pristine surface intended by the artist. In this case, as opposed to the wooden figurine, the artist could be interviewed. Popping from lime inclusions can be avoided by different firing conditions and temperatures, but with these different techniques the shape and color of her pieces would change. This was unacceptable to the artist, who decided to accept the consequences of the lime popping in exchange for the color and shape she desired in her works.
In documentation, there are surveys for living artists: Maters in Media Art (Tate Modern), the Guggenheim Museum’s Variable Media Approach, and those available through INCAA. In these surveys, there is an anthropological aspect. For instance, inherent vice (present in both traditional and contemporary arts) can be intentional – or not. In Ghada Amer’s Hunger, from the “Earth Matters” exhibit currently on display until January 2014, “HUNGER” is spelled out on using seeds and plants in the grounds of the NMAA. The letters will change with different plants in different seasons, and will naturally decay.
Artist-Conservator interactions are possible perhaps more easily with contemporary pieces, though the inherent vice can be the same. In Henreique Oliveira’s Bololo from 1991 was destroyed after the exhibit (it was a huge piece(s) of brazilwood installed to appear as if it were growing out of a wall, filling the gallery in serpentine forms). Willem Boshoff’s Writing in Sand from 2005 consisted of white sand spread over the floor with black sand letters forming a text. The public was able to touch the piece, and the artist liked that the public could damage it; still, the meaning of the piece was intent on its words, so they had to be restored. This occurred about once/week, and by the end of the exhibit, the sand was mostly gray.
In the conservation of ethnographic objects, treatments are often conservative, though problems many be similar to those encountered in contemporary works. Berni Seale’s (Searle?) To Hold in the Palm of the Hand is a 2006 installation, and incorporated powdered henna on its surface. Stephanie had to replace this henna (after finding an appropriate source) while on display. Conversely, Powdered pigment would not be replaced on a traditional object, such as a Zulu hat that also had a powdery, red pigmented surface.
Regarding artist intent and conservation treatment, sometimes contemporary materials require more immediate conservation. 1997’s amendment to AIC’s Code of Ethics/Guidelines for Practice were amended with Commentary 23, paragraph D, to provide rationale for greater intervention. Stephanie Hornbeck, however, fells the commentary is too vague and broad, and can be contrary to conservation principles. (Louise Nevelson’s Dreamhouse XLIII, 1993, at the Miami Art Museum is a dilemma for Stephanie.) For contemporary art, how far into the past and future do invasive treatments, such as repainting, apply?
The Getty has a publication entitled The Object in Transition, which is available online for the public and discusses specific examples. Pretty much, pieces must be evaluated on a case by case basis, but the outcomes are truly variable. There is a dilemma between accepted standards and “case by case” bases for treatment, and this is a really interesting point that I think conservators should consider more deeply.
The VARA act came into being in 1990. This discusses copyright law and ownership. VARA 106 A (c) (2) is an important paragraph. In Europe, the future of a given piece is guided by the artist; in the United States, it is guided by the owner. This has a great influence on the direction for conservation in the two continents.

Q&A: there was an interesting discussion about when treatments on ethnographic collections became more restrained. Sanchita Balachandran offered an interesting insight, stating that some of that restraint occurred when museums changed from being “owners” of the collections to “stewards” of the collections.

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Concerning the Ecce Homo by Borja, Spanish and Catalan Conservators Want to Report

This summer Spain has been in the limelight due to an improper intervention on a artistic work of art, executed by a painting amateur in good faith, but without the knowledge to carry out this task.

It has been a long time since we, conservators, have begun struggling for the correct conservation of our cultural heritage and today we are disconcerted as much by the constant loss that  e notice everyday (what happened in Borja is not an isolated example), as by the type of news the media have transmitted to the whole world. It is sad that the majority of our society underestimate our profession.

For this reason, we would first like to clarify who we are and what we do.

The conservator:

  • performs an activity of public interest
  • differs from other professionals by his/her specific
  • education in conservation of cultural heritage
  • is not an artist nor a craftsman

It is the professional that has the training and the experience to act on cultural heritage with the aim to preserve it for future generations, always according to the guidelines of an international code of deontology. Secondly, we want to report that neither the Spanish law of historical heritage, neither the laws of the different autonomies in Spain, guarantee the correct protection of our heritage. None of these laws recognises the figure of the conservator as the only one professional with the necessary competences to diagnose and take part in all that regards the conservation of cultural heritage.

In attempting to change this situation, we claim that:

  1. To guarantee the preservation of cultural heritage and its correct transmission to future generations our profession has to be regulated and recognised. Consequently the access and the exercise of the profession of conservator has to be governed by specific juridical norms and the professional title has to be clear-cut and recognised at State level.
  2. The conservators, through the professional associations, have to be represented in the consultative organisms at national and autonomic level, so that they can look over the good practice and correct conservation of cultural heritage.
  3. The system of professional and business qualifications for tenders and public bids have to be clarified, with standards specified to conservation. 4.  A register of qualified conservators needs to be created.

Tourism being one of the main economic dynamics on which our country has bet to get us out of the crisis, we conservators believe that this could and should have to be a sustainable and quality cultural tourism. To preserve a unique cultural heritage, to possess an excellent preventive conservation plan and to have the best specialists to take care of our cultural heritage should have been the headlines in the national and international media. Something does not work when it looks like
a joke and the more lousy the work is, the more rewarded it is when this should inspire shame and indignation. It is essential, for any country with values, to bet for quality in our work, carried out by qualified professionals. As we have understood
that the protection of the environment is of special importance for our quality of life, society also have to be conscious of the importance of culture and the worth of its correct conservation. And it is in this field where the conservator has a great role to play.  We have had enough of allowing unqualified people to work indirectly on our cultural heritage, Our heritage is in danger, lot’s save it.


Grup Tecnic
Associacio Professional dels Conservadors-Restauradors de bens culturals de Catalunya

Associacion de Conservadores-Restauradores de Espana

Associacio de Conservadors-Restauradors de Catalunya

Grupo Espanol de Conservacion. International Institute for Conservation

Agnes Gall-Ortlik
President of the Grup Tecnic

If we didn’t know who did it, would we think it was vandalism?

Today, the exhibit “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” opens at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. Among the pieces on view are “Dropping a Han Dynasty Vase” and “Coca-Cola Vase” in which Weiwei reinvents ancient Chinese vases by defacing or destroying them.

If a conservator were presented with a neolithic vase that had been painted over with a Coca-Cola logo and knew nothing of the context of the overpainting, would that conservator believe that he or she was dealing with vandalism that must be undone?

The physical enjoyment of works of art

On January 21, 2012, the Walters Art Museum (Baltimore, MD) opened an exhibit, “Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture: Exploring the Appeal of Renaissance Statuettes“, designed in conjunction with the Johns Hopkins University Brain Science Institute to explore the implications of tactile perception for the enjoyment of sculpture. The exhibit provides museum visitors the rare opportunity to touch twenty-two (replica) statuettes. If we conservators were to be candid, wouldn’t a great many of us admit that one of the things that drew us to the field was the opportunity to touch and hold works of art?

Scenarios and the Futures of Conservation

Pauline Frederick – Potiphar’s wife from the Bain Collection, Library of Congress, call number LC-B2-2633-9.

I know there’s days when I find myself wishing for a Wayback Machine so that I could travel back into the past, and then there are days when I’m thinking about what might happen five or ten years from now. Do you ever think about how different our jobs will be 20 years from now?

Conservator of frames and furniture at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, MaryJo Lelyveld applied forecasting and the technique of  scenario planning to consider what the field of conservation might look like in 2030 for the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM) National Meeting in September 2011. In the body of the paper she suggests that this longer range forecasting is beneficial in thinking through what skills conservators will need to develop and how organizations will need to adapt as a result. In an appendix, she suggests three possible scenarios factoring in the impact of the cost of caring for collections in a time of slow economic growth, technology, and a rise in volunteerism in the face of an aging population and an under employed younger generation, among other things.

For more commentary on Leyveld’s paper, Beyond Swabs and Solvent Gels: Using scenarios to generate, evaluate and navigate conservation futures, see the American Association of Museum’s Center for the Future of Museum’s blog.