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The Reasons for Conservation

Why do we conserve some artworks instead of others? I was recently reading something for school that delved into this, and it got me thinking. So here's the first of a new series I'm calling Reading Rants!

There is a chapter in Contemporary Theory of Conservation by Salvador Muñoz Viñas regarding the reasons for conservation. When you first think about conservation, and the reasoning behind it, the first thought that comes to mind is that there’s an object of high cultural or monetary value that needs care. But how does this object acquire such a status? This chapter brings up some extremely interesting ideas regarding the psychology of conservation.

The first thing the chapter brought to light is how we project our own fears and issues with aging onto cultural objects. We are so concerned with living as long as we can, while looking as good as we can. This is exactly what we try to do with conservation and restoration! Countless objects have been over-cleaned and heavily restored in past decades in order to make them look fresh and new. Museums and other cultural institutions are pressured to keep the masterpieces of the world in pristine condition- after all; most profit is made by visitors coming to see these legendary works of art. How is someone who is not from an art historical background supposed to appreciate the Birth of Venus if its not breathtaking from the very first glance? If such a painting was covered in a layer of dirt, or had a yellowed varnish, showing its true age, most wouldn’t take the time to look below and see its true beauty.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

The chapter says we interfere with masterpieces of the past “so that masterworks are adapted to our own mediocrity”, that we compensate our present shortcomings by interjecting ourselves with our superior science and technology. We’re systematically demystifying the legends of the past in order to insert our dominance over the present.

The chapter stated that the 20th century is more uncertain and anxious about its relationship with history than any previous age. Until the time of the Industrial Revolution, there was no real separation between contemporary society and the past, everything was just a continuation and development. After the turn of the century, we started viewing history as something separate, something very distant from our own time. And this changed our entire thought process when it came to approaching and treating history.

Coming back to actual objects relating to our shared cultural history, one final remark was made: it’s that when we care for something, it shows our appreciation for it and what it symbolizes. We put meaning onto these objects, and the ones we have chosen to care for are the ones that have gained status as part of our cultural heritage. It’s us as a whole that choose what our cultural heritage should be. It’s this act of caring and conservation that makes an object or piece of art culturally significant to our civilization, not the significance of the object that demands conservation.

Have any questions? Email me!

Link to the Book:


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