Go back to article: Challenges of conservation: working objects

Conservation and controversy

Conservation usually involves some modification either to the environment or to an object itself, so it can change either the substance or the perception of an object (or both). Obviously, removal of harmful accretions, or addition of a consolidant, will affect the material character, but even the preventive process of putting an object in a purpose-designed protective box or mount can change the way it is viewed and thus valued. Because it involves choices and sometimes compromise, conservation is not a neutral activity, and can be controversial.

Perhaps one of the most controversial and tricky actions a conservator can take is to clean an object (to remove accretions such as dirt, or decayed varnish, or metal corrosion) in order to retrieve original detail and appearance. In everyday life cleaning is normally seen as a harmless, even laudable action, but in conservation it can be the subject of serious debate (Hedley, 1986 and 1990; Bomford and Leonard, 2004: Part VI). Some people prefer the familiar look of age so the ‘new’ appearance of a cleaned stone sculpture or painting can be perturbing (see Stanley Price, 1996: Part VII). However, retaining the familiar uncleaned state conflicts with the aim of recovering original surface information (and removing harmful substances). The lay viewer may not necessarily be aware of the state of the object or of the many deliberations which may have taken place before a decision is taken on whether to clean, how to clean and how far to go. There have been a number of controversies focused on the cleaning of paintings (Bomford, 1994; Bomford and Leonard, 2004: Part VI), and on the cleaning of sculpture and glass, some of which have been energetically publicised by ArtWatch International and its UK branch on their websites (ArtWatch, 2016). A current example of controversy is the cleaning (and restoration) of the interior of Chartres Cathedral in France (Calvel, 2014).

Surfaces carry information such as tool marks, coatings, libations, even finger prints (Pye, 2001; Caple, 2006). Conservation cleaning is a highly skilled activity, and it is undoubtedly possible to over clean through inexperience, by misjudgement (or even by intention). During the last two centuries many sculptures were apparently cleaned of much of the remaining traces of paint (e.g. Larson, 1997). By its very nature the process of cleaning involves removal of material, but it may be difficult to distinguish physically between the extraneous ‘dirt’ and the original object. Dirt may have penetrated coatings such as varnishes, or fibrous structures such as paper so be almost intermingled with the original. Metal corrosion is formed when the metal of the object reacts with factors such as water or salts in the environment, so inevitably removal of corrosion removes some of the original metal. The appearance of any object after cleaning may seem different and brighter, but cleaning also has an important role in investigation and research. When excavated coins are cleaned the gradual removal of obscuring dirt and corrosion layers may reveal an inscription and hence a date, or when a painting is cleaned the removal of later restorations and other accretions uncovers the artist’s original brushwork and choice of pigments (Caple, 2000; Bomford and Leonard, 2004; Muñoz Viñas, 2005).

Many of those perturbed by the cleaning of Chartres had valued the dark interiors, and air of mystery, so are shocked by a new, and to them unwelcome or even false, brightness. Whereas others rejoice in the revelation of what are considered to be the original colours and design.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160608/009