The Conservator as the Storyteller of Art

The Conservator as the Storyteller of Art

From sculptures and drawings, to paintings and prints, museums around the world collect,
maintain, and display cultural heritage and artwork for the world to view. For some, visiting the typical
art gallery or museum is purely for the appreciation of artistic expression, while for others it is a way to
experience and value a piece of history. For the duration of their “museum experience,” few viewers
realize that more often than not, the hand of the conservator has played a role in what is being
presented in front of them.

Art conservators – a profession directed at protecting, treating, and safeguarding cultural
heritage – play a significant role in the story that is told by artwork. What a conservator does to a work
of art during its lifetime determines what the everyday gallerygoer takes away from the piece when it is
displayed in a museum.

Having started my first year of the Art Conservation program, I’ve been exposed to many
thoughts and theories in approaches to the conservation of art. “The conservator as a narrator,” a
notion raised by conservator David Bomford, is one of the many thought-provoking ideas that have been
discussed frequently in the field. Let’s say the famous Mona Lisa is a victim of a catastrophic flood. Do
conservators completely restore the portrait to its original condition, as Leonardo intended? Or do they
leave remnants of the losses that the painting endured through its own history? What story is the most
important to tell the audience?

A more common problem faced by painting conservators concerns yellowing varnish. Artists
usually apply a varnish layer on top of their paintings as both a protective layer and a way to saturate
their colours. After many years, this layer can heavily yellow and disturb the aesthetics of the artwork.
Does a conservator remove the varnish to reveal the vivid original colours underneath, or leave some of
the varnish as a mark of its historical age? Is it of value for the painting to look “old”?
More interesting questions arise with the conservation of conceptual art. The recently
controversial work by Maurizio Cattelan titled Comedian, more infamously known as the banana duct
taped to a wall, is a great example of the complex artworks that conservators are preserving today.
What happens when the banana starts to rot, or the tape starts to lose its adhesion to the wall? Can
either the banana or duct tape be replaced by the conservator, or does that replacement take away
from the meaning of the artist’s work?

A conservator not only responds to these questions according to the artwork’s personal needs,
the artist’s intent, and their code of ethics; in many cases, society’s values can also have an impact on
the conservation decisions made. You – the viewer – and your experience with the artwork is always
taken into consideration. Next time you enter a museum and walk through its galleries, question the
narratives that are being displayed, because they are ultimately being conserved for you.

This piece was written by Emily Joyce for Muse Issue XX, find it here

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