This Tuesday, February 11, 2014, the “‘Cultural Conservation’: Preserving Place and Practice” class attended the first spring event in the Mellon Foundation-sponsored “Conservation Conversations” lecture series. The theme of Tuesday’s program was time — conservation as a way to understand the effect of time on objects. Scholars Francesca Bewer and Laurent Olivier each presented a lecture and then joined moderator Hanna Hölling to dialogue with each other and discuss with the audience.

Francesca Bewer
, Research Curator at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at Harvard Art Museums, gave the first talk, entitled “Material Matters: Early Scientific Inquiry in Archaeology and Art.”

In her presentation, Bewer discussed the influence of Harvard University’s Fogg Museum on the development of a scientific approach to conservation. Edward Forbes (1873-1979), who became director of the Fogg in 1909, was the driving force behind this initiative. When he began collecting Renaissance and medieval paintings in poor condition, he became interested in the artists’ materials and how the chemical makeup of works related to their degradation over time. Among his collaborators at the Fogg were Alan Burroughs, the first art historian to use x-rays to examine paintings, and Rutherford Gettens, the first chemist to work in an art museum’s scientific laboratory.

We found it intriguing that Forbes’ attitude towards conservation simultaneously mirrored and conflicted with contemporary philosophies of conservation. Today, conservators use cutting-edge technology to determine the best methods of preserving an object. In this sense, Forbes can be seen as the founder of modern conservation: his scientific approach to art objects was novel and quite controversial in his time.

Forbes, however, tended to be bolder in his conservation measures than conservators are today. For example, Forbes would strip the work of previous restorers from paintings, intending to gain a truer understanding of the original work. Today, earlier restorations of objects are likely to be left in place even if they are inaccurate, and sometimes even become the topic of scholarly study. For instance, a classical Greek statue with nineteenth-century restored limbs could be understood not only as an artifact of ancient Greek society, but also as an artifact of nineteenth-century idealization of the classical past.

Laurent Olivier spoke second. Dr. Olivier is the Curator-in-Chief of the Celtic and Gallic Department at the National Museum of Archaeology in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, and a Professor of Antiquities at the École du Louvre. He gave a talk entitled, “Henri Hubert Between Durkheim and Mauss: The Visual Reconstruction of Archaeological Time.”

Henri Hubert (1872–1927) was a curator at the National Museum of Antiquities who was devoted to expanding and classifying the museum’s collections. He remodeled the museum’s display of artifacts in a way that emphasized comparative archaeology. Olivier showed how the files that Hubert left behind reveal clues to his working methodology. For example, Hubert drew up charts to compare the technical properties of objects with their stylistic character.

Olivier explained how Hubert wanted to create his museum as a “world in reduction,” presenting it as a microcosm of human history and scope. We thought it was puzzling, though, that given his interest in conservation, Hubert did not conduct scientific tests on his objects, which in retrospect could have helped organize and expand his inquiries. This reluctance to use laboratory science strikes us as odd, given the way the practice of technical conservation is so integrated with science today.

Dr. Olivier concluded his presentation by comparing Hubert’s efforts to the scholarly pursuits of Aby Warburg. On a broad level, he showed how Hubert and Warburg shared similar approaches to understanding and classifying objects, using the layout technique of “descriptive grids” to try to find meaning and connections among an array of objects. Both asked the question: how can we display, classify, and understand the objects of the past, and what can that tell us about historical cultures?

Hubert and Forbes had very different understandings of the effect of time on artifacts. However, we found that they both brought up interesting scholarly and ethical questions related to conservation today, particularly in light of our recent in-depth exploration of the Tenement Museum’s conservation project.

To watch the video of the evening’s lectures, view in the BGC multimedia archive by clicking here.