Following our “Extreme Conservation Symposium” (convened March 20, 2015), we asked each presenter to share one idea from his or her presentation in short form on this blog. We are grateful for this opportunity to continue thinking through their groundbreaking work.

Conservation in Auschwitz

What you see today when visiting the former German concentration camp, is the result of one hundred years of preservation efforts. They immediately began with the camp liberation on January 27, 1945. A number of former inmates insisted that the former camp should serve as a warning to future generations. The Polish Ministry of Culture joined in by making the site a national museum, opening in 1947 (the term museum may be disturbing, however, there is no appropriate word for memorial in the Polish language).

Over the years the initiators were supported by carpenters, metalworkers, roofers and others to help preserve the buildings, barracks, watch towers, electric fences, brickwork, wooden constructions (of course, there were paper restorers to take care of the written documents in the archives). When our group with conservation students from the University of Applied Sciences Cologne arrived in Auschwitz in July 1993 all preservation efforts were in the hands of one construction engineer and there were workshops with well trained craftsmen of various trades.

Our work focused on objects of very different nature: clothing, furniture, suitcases, leather ware, paintings, drawings, wooden constructions, paper – in short, the full spectrum of things as kept in the Department of Collections. This department was then headed by Irena Szymańska, a most competent museum specialist. Cooperation with her became a wonderful token of growing mutual understanding and eventual friendship. It had been most pleasing to learn that the conservation philosophies developed in this department and in our Cologne institute were more or less identical.

Each summer from 1993 until 2003 groups of students from Cologne, enlarged by conservation students from the Warsaw Art Academy, spent two weeks in Auschwitz, working on hundreds of objects. The Cologne work excursion are continued, now specializing in mural paintings, particularly those of Birkenau (Auschwitz II).

Through a generous donation from the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation a spacious, well-equipped conservation lab was established in 2003. In additions to its full time staff, students from various countries help complete ambitious conservation tasks.

The Cologne Institute of Conservation Sciences

For more than fifteen years I had enjoyed the privilege of teaching the restoration and conservation of wood objects at the University of Applied Sciences Cologne and its Institute of Conservation Sciences, then together with my colleague Andreas Krupa M.A. We developed a wide work spectrum on many types of objects. My successor, Prof. Dr. Friederike Waentig, has even extended it. Meanwhile I am enjoying the pleasures of retirement since 2003.

The Institute of Conservation Sciences of the University of Applied Sciences Cologne offers study courses in five specialties: painting/sculpture/modern art, cultural heritage made of wood/modern materials, books/graphic art/photographs/illumination, textiles/fibres in archaeological objects, and mural paintings/cultural heritage made of stone, allowing further specialisation in the fields of conservation of cultural property. Want to know more? Write to [email protected].

The institute is publishing the series of Cologne Contributions to the Restoration and Conservation of Cultural Property (“Kölner Beiträge zur Restaurierung und Konservierung von Kunst- und Kulturgut”), some in English. More than twenty volumes have so far appeared.

Friedemann Hellwig is Professor Emeritus at the University of Applied Sciences, Cologne.