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News | Published: Fri 30 Jun 2006

ImageMission Impossible? Ethics and choices in conservation

It considers issues that the conservator and curator face daily when deciding the best treatment for works of art in order to preserve them for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations whilst making them accessible to today’s visitors.

Examples are drawn from the Museum’s collections of fine art, antiquities and applied arts. The surface of a seventeenth century Dutch painting that has received little if any treatment now looks very uneven as the canvas inevitably loses its structural strength. Any major intervention will change the original state of the painting irreversibly forever. Can sympathetic display reduce the appearance of some of the distortions without undertaking extensive repairs? If left untreated now, will the structure become so fragile that any future repair will be much more difficult or even impossible? A music manuscript displays the corrosive effects of iron gall ink which has destroyed the parchment to which it has been applied. How can the progress of this irreversible damage be slowed and the manuscript be made safely accessible for display and study? A fragmentary Roman sculpture has been extensively reconstructed in the eighteenth century by a major English sculptor. His repairs are now of great historical interest. Should the sculpture be preserved in its present state, or would it be better understood in its ‘original’ fragmentary state? The progress of the restoration of three damaged Chinese porcelain vases will be charted during the course of the exhibition, with one vase going on display when conservation has been completed.

Visitors can observe the impact of agents of degradation: the self-destructing components of glass and artists’ pigments, the damaging effects of light, changes in relative humidity, unsuitable storage, past inappropriate treatments and the ravages of pests, including insects and that most ubiquitous specimen, man. Working models will encourage visitors to ‘Please Touch’, thereby enabling them to see, and actually contribute to, damage taking place.

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Exhibition Details

A programme of courses and talks accompanies the exhibition