Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 25, 2016
Sarah Staniforth, ed. Historical Perspectives on Preventive Conservation Readings in Conservation. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2013. 456 pp.; 10 color ills.; 12 b/w ills. Paper $70.00 (9781606061428)

Historical Perspectives on Preventive Conservation is the sixth installment in the Getty Conservation Institute’s “Readings in Conservation” series, which presents compilations of texts that the editors consider to be integral to the development of the theory and practice of the conservation profession. The series began with Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage (1996) and this has been followed by (to present) additional titles relating to the conservation of paintings, photographs, textiles, archaeological sites, and paper. Given current interests in preventive conservation and sustainability measures, Historical Perspectives on Preventive Conservation is a timely and important addition to “Readings in Conservation.”

As stated in the second law of thermodynamics, all physical matter deteriorates with time. Degradation is inevitable. “Preventive conservation” refers to any action that attempts to slow this process in the hope of extending the lifespan of cultural property, thereby enabling it to be appreciated by future generations. The rate at which these entropic changes occur depends on many factors, such as an artwork’s material composition, its intended function or use (if any), and the environment and climate to which it is exposed. Preventive conservation often involves restricting or prohibiting the handling of (or interaction with) cultural property and creating a stable environment that buffers it from the harmful effects of potentially destructive forces such as light, temperature, humidity, and pests.

The intent of the volume is to provide a context for what is meant by “preventive conservation” and to illustrate how thinking and practices have evolved. Many of the texts are from English sources and range largely from the late eighteenth-century to the present day. The absence of more selections from non-English sources as well as from those predating the late eighteenth-century is conspicuous. According to the editor, Sarah Staniforth, this was unavoidable in that few could be located (xiv).

The book is comprised of sixty-six entries (full texts and excerpts) that are divided into nine themes, or “parts.” Each part begins with an introduction. Individual entries, prefaced with their own brief summaries, appear, in most cases, chronologically. Little commentary or evaluation is presented, leaving selections to stand on their own and the reader free to evaluate as she or he chooses. An extensive “further reading” bibliography that complements each section is included at the end of the book.

While entries are divided into nine sections, topics fall into three categories: background (1–3), causes of deterioration (4–8), and future trends (9). Part 1, titled “Philosophies of Preventive Conservation,” includes six texts and begins with selections by John Ruskin and William Morris, both of whom Staniforth accredits with laying the foundation for the philosophy of what came to be known as “preventive conservation.” Ruskin’s text is an impassioned opening to the volume: speaking particularly of monuments, he pleads that they not be allowed to deteriorate out of neglect, only to be restored once they have fallen into disrepair. Be proactive with regular maintenance so that restoration is not necessary to begin with, he implores. Cesare Brandi and Gaël de Guichen make distinctions between the terms “preservation,” “conservation,” and “restoration.” David Lowenthal and Miriam Clavir follow with entries arguing that philosophies of conservation are culturally dependent, i.e., one culture may value the tangible properties of an object while another may prioritize its intangible qualities.

Part 2, “Keeping Things,” has twelve readings and illustrates how traditions and practices of caring for cultural artifacts have been passed down from one generation to the next. It is a personal favorite and a most interesting read. The section begins with M. Vitruvius Pollio’s first-century BCE discourse on the proper arrangement of rooms and orientation of buildings to the sun. Teiji Itoh describes the role and function of Japanese kura (storehouses), which have been in use since the seventh- or eighth-century BCE and how, amazingly, without conditioning systems for air (heating, cooling, ventilation) they protect the items enclosed within from all manner of threats ranging from environmental (high humidity, fire, earthquakes) to more intentional ones (rats and thieves). O. P. Agrawal discusses traditional Indian alternatives to pesticides and techniques to reduce the harmful effects of a tropical climate. Readings by Susanna Whatman, Isabella Beeton, and Elizabeth Gaskell document eighteenth- and nineteenth-century housekeeping practices and are some of the most impactful selections in the publication. They are a sobering reminder that preventive conservation efforts are a service to all cultural heritage, not just to artwork in museums or private collections, and that proactive, disciplined maintenance routines can be more efficient and cost effective than reactive efforts undertaken once the condition of an artwork has already been compromised.

Part 3 is titled “Early Years of Conservation in Museums” and presents four of the first documented sources that discuss preventive conservation in museums. In London, two “Report[s] from the Select Committee on the National Gallery” (1850 and 1853) examine the causes of dirty pictures in their galleries, ranging from air pollution, to grimy ventilator pipes, to overcrowding. Interestingly, the crowded galleries were considered to be a problem, and the reports were critical of the fact that they were used for all manner of public activities. It is perhaps ironic that museums today (although equipped with better air filtration systems) are trying to “crowd” their galleries by promoting social and engaging programs that may have very little to do with the art appreciation.

Parts 4–8 involve the day-to-day work of those charged with the safekeeping of cultural property. These sections illustrate the application of scientific investigation to understanding how environmental factors cause changes in objects and, using this information, how strategic approaches are implemented to mitigate these effects. Part 4 has ten entries and focuses on “Relative Humidity and Temperature.” The most remarkable selection is by Martin Davies and Ian Rawlins who describe the evacuation of the National Gallery’s collection (London) in 1939, only several hours before the start of the Second World War, to North Wales and its subsequent storage in the Manod Quarry. The undertaking (and accompanying photography) is nothing short of miraculous. A related entry by T. R. Keeley and F. Ian G. Rawlins comments that before the war a member of the staff at the National Gallery was employed eight months out of the year to treat cracks, blisters, and flaking paint in the museum’s paintings. Once the artwork was installed in the quarry’s underground tunnels, these visits were required less and less frequently until, by 1945, they were no longer necessary as the pictures were in such stable condition. Upon being reinstalled in London postwar, the condition issues returned, motivating the museum to try to re-create the favorable climate of the quarry in its galleries. It could be argued that this event set the standard for controlled museum environments that continues to present. The final entry by David Erhardt, Charles S. Tumosa, and Marion Mecklenburg attempts to discredit the field’s longstanding and widely accepted climate recommendations in favor of more relaxed (and economical) guidelines that are based on their research. The article is somewhat controversial as it attempts to dismiss the concept that “more constant is better” (173), and it accuses the established climate standards of being “based on little evidence [and] illogical and unfounded interpretations of what evidence was available” (177). This reader would like to have seen addressed issues of structural restraint (i.e., cradled panels) and some qualification with regard to the relative humidity levels that the authors promote that would include an acceptable time interval for any fluctuation.

Part 5, on “Light,” has six entries and begins with studies that discuss the deleterious effects of light on watercolor, textiles, and dyes. The remaining selections identify the spectral regions of sunlight and other light sources (bulbs) that lead to fading and suggest manners of reducing their harmful properties. This section was informative and provided a comprehensive background for how present light-level recommendations were established. Part 6, on the topic of “Pests,” and also with six entries, discusses methods of preventing infestation. The most noteworthy selection (both for this reader and perhaps even historically in respect to the use of pesticides) is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (New York: Houghton Mifflin,1962). Her plea for controlling insects through biological means, rather than through pesticides, raised awareness of the effects of these devastatingly toxic chemicals on the food chain and contributed to the banning of DDT in “developed” countries.

Part 7, on “Pollution,” has three entries and opens with a discussion on air pollution in London caused by the burning of coal. This is followed by a reading about the state of the pictures in the National Gallery (London) and ends with an article by Loftus St. George Byne that investigates the phenomenon that came to be known as Byne’s disease. Part 8, “The Museum Environment and Risk Management,” has seven entries and begins with H. J. Plenderleith and A. E. A. Werner’s “The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art: Treatment, Repair, and Restoration” (1971), which conveys the broad scope of work related to the monitoring and control of museum environments. The preface from Garry Thomson’s The Museum Environment (2nd ed., London: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1986) describes his publication, which is considered by many to be the first comprehensive “how-to” book on preventive conservation.

“Future Trends” is the final part and has twelve entries focusing on issues that are now being addressed in preventive conservation and that also suggest concerns that the profession may need to consider moving forward. M. Kirby Talley Jr.’s “The Delta Plan: A National Rescue Operation” (1999) discusses the need to assign a value to objects in a collection in order to prioritize preservation efforts. A thoughtful article by Museums Australia, “Museums and Sustainability: Guidelines for Policy and Practice in Museums and Galleries” (2003), refers to sustainability not just in terms of financial sustainability but also social and environmental. Nick Merriman’s “Museum Collections and Sustainability” (2008) argues for limiting the growth of collections via de-accessioning when this growth becomes unsustainable. Roberto Nardi’s “Open-Heart Restoration: Raising the Awareness of the Public” (2000) stresses the importance of embracing the public and engaging with it proactively rather than reacting to it as if it was a burden to do so. The final selection, “Slow Conservation” (2010), by Staniforth, concludes the volume by comparing sustainability measures in preventive conservation to those of the slow food movement.

It is self-evident—but worth commenting—that the part titled “Future Trends” is not “historical” and diverges from the “historical perspectives” aspect of the book. Also, while a broad range of issues is discussed, there are two notable omissions. One subject that this reader would like to have seen addressed is that recent decades have experienced an exponential increase in the variety of materials available to artists. The sheer number of these materials, coupled with the added complication that proprietary formulations can change without notice and are often not shared with enquiring scientists or conservators, means that treatments have the potential to become increasingly problematic. Where treatment may not be possible for solubility, authenticity, or even artist-mandated reasons, preventive conservation may be the only means to help these objects endure. Secondly, the present museum climate standards have, for decades, proven effective in slowing deterioration. Perhaps understandably, given the trend in implementing sustainability measures, the tone of this section appears to subtly advocate widening these standards in order to reduce exorbitantly high energy costs and expenditures on additional resources that are associated with maintaining the established levels. However, it does not adequately acknowledge that this is an active debate. There are many conservators and conservation scientists who believe that to do so would be detrimental to artwork and that environmental standards should remain as they are at present. As the publication promotes itself as “historical” and, by extension, unbiased, it may have been appropriate to present the issue in a more clear and transparent manner. This is particularly the case as one of the four primary criteria in selecting entries—as stated in the preface of the book—was to create a publication that would be written for “the general public,” not only for professionals in the field who would already be aware of these issues (xiv). Students and those from other professions would require some form of context surrounding this debate.

Historical Perspectives on Preventive Conservation illustrates the fact that current practices are part of a long and continuing tradition of careful observation and study. With increasing varieties of artist’s materials of untested properties and with pressures to reduce costs and implement sustainability measures, this evolution is still in progress. Increased awareness of the need to be proactive with preventive conservation initiatives is of paramount importance. Staniforth and the Getty Conservation Institute have brought necessary attention to this field and have created a relevant and valuable resource that will be of continued service to all those interested in the safeguarding of cultural property.

Shawn Digney-Peer
Associate Conservator, Paintings Conservation Department, Metropolitan Museum of Art