Damage class with Roger Griffith at the entrance to MoMA’s Bruce Conner retrospective IT’S ALL TRUE. Image credit: Megan Randall.

As our semester winds down we want to revisit some of the class sessions from this year’s Damage, Decay and Conservation course taught by Ivan Gaskell (Professor, BGC) and Jessica Walthew (Andrew W. Mellon Fellow, Cultures of Conservation).

The course touches on a variety of issues in the history and theory of conservation, with the goal of making BGC students more familiar with (and conversant in) conservation terms, techniques, approaches, and ethics. Along with our course readings and conversations, we also took advantage of our location in New York to tackle these issues in person with conservators at several different institutions.

At the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), we visited the Bruce Conner and Kai Altoff shows with sculpture conservators Roger Griffith and Megan Randall. Our class focused on the problematic concept of “Artist’s Intention,” looking at how these intentions are identified, interpreted, and invoked in conservation decision-making. Roger and Megan recently treated an important work by Conner in preparation for the exhibit. They discussed the challenging treatment and the ethical issues it posed with us, as well as in their catalog entry “The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Bruce Conner’s Child” and in a blog post for MoMA (link below).

Next, the Damage class interrogated the concepts of Dirt and Cleaning at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine with Marlene Eidelheit, Director of the Textile Conservation Laboratory. Professor Jeffrey Collins joined our group. We discussed the nature of dirt—far more problematic than one might imagine—while pondering the practicalities of intervening to treat works in the series of monumental seventeenth-century tapestries woven for the Barberini in Rome, and given to the Cathedral even before it was built. We also examined other projects in progress, including the conservation of an early 20th-century Spanish matador’s costume, pondering whether “matter out of place” adequately accounts for the nature of dirt.

Students with Prof. Gaskell and Marlene Eidelheit at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Image credit: Jeffrey Collins.

At The Metropolitan Museum of Art we visited the Ancient Near East and Islamic galleries with conservator Jean François de Lapérouse. We examined issues related to past restorations and the different approaches to damage and losses between archaeological and decorative art objects. Past restoration treatments can also provoke challenging questions of authenticity, as discussed in Jean François’s blog posts and video (links below).

Metropolitan Museum of Art Conservator Jean François de Lapérouse discussing the Damascus Room restoration project in the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia galleries. Image credit: Jessica Walthew.

We then had a visit from Francesca Esmay, conservator, and Jeffrey Weiss, curator, both of the Guggenheim’s Panza Initiative. This Initiative deals with issues of conservation and “integrity” of a collection of minimalist, post-minimalist and conceptual artworks in the Guggenheim’s Panza Collection. Our class discussed ways in which conceptual integrity in modern and contemporary art requires different ways of thinking for both curatorial and conservation approaches.

Our final visit of the semester was to the American Museum of Natural History’s Anthropology Conservation laboratory, where we learned about the ethical considerations involved in the conservation of archaeological and ethnographic collections at the museum. Conservators Samantha Alderson and Amy Tjiong showed us beautiful birch bark boxes and Salmon skin and gutskin coats from Siberia, which are being conserved as part of a project on the Museum’s important Jesup Expedition collection. We also visited the Northwest Coast Hall to discuss Jessica’s conservation research project investigating cleaning approaches for totem poles.

Conservators Samantha Alderson and Amy Tjiong showing the class a Siberian fish skin coat being conserved in the lab. Image credit: Jessica Walthew.

We’d like to extend our appreciation to our colleagues for their most informative and enjoyable contributions to our class. It’s a real pleasure and privilege for the BGC students to link classroom learning with real world museum practice, and we are so pleased that Cultures of Conservation has brought Conservation to the classrooms at Bard.

See also:
Megan Randall and Roger Griffith, “Resurrection The Conservation Treatment of Bruce Conner’s CHILD,” Inside/Out: A MoMA/MoMA PS1 Blog, July 6, 2016.

Roger Griffith and Megan Randall, “The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Bruce Conner’s Child.” in Conner, Bruce, Rudolf Frieling, Gary Garrels, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, N.Y., Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. Bruce Conner: It’s All True, 2016. San Francisco, California : San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in association with University of California Press.

Making the Invisible Visible: Conservation and Islamic Art, exhibition website, Metropolitan Museum of Art (April – August, 2013).

Jean-François de Laperouse, Revealing the Original. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Jean-François de Lapérouse, Using Digital Imagery to Examine the History of Islamic Ceramics. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Guggenheim Museum of Art. “The Panza Collection.”

Judith Levinson, Jessica Pace and Amy Tjiong. Conserving the Siberian Collections American Museum of Natural History, Anthropology Division. July 15, 2015.