Monday, August 9, 2010

Science Cafe Cleveland: Looking at Art Inside and Out: An Art Conservator's Perspective

A few months ago I attended my first Science Cafe, a quite interesting program on latent finger prints. After that cafe I signed up for the email list, but schedule conflicts have kept me from attending another.

Science Cafe Cleveland is sponsored by the Case Western Reserve University chapter of Sigma Xi and takes place in the Great Lakes Brewing Company Tasting Room and has a very casual atmosphere with hors d'oeuvres and the bar remaining open in the back of the room throughout.

Tonight's Science Cafe featured Shelley Reisman Paine, conservator of objects, and Moyna Stanton, conservator of paper, both of the Cleveland Museum of Art. I had first heard Ms. Paine talk about conservation during the Museum's Member Appreciation Day last September and that was my first real--and intriguing--glimpse of the art and science of conservation. As a result, when I saw this month's Science Cafe topic and had the evening free I didn't want to miss the presentation.

If anything, the evening was too short. Beginning with a discussion of the restoration history of one print including some early repairs and the processes used to discover them, followed by an extensive Question and Answer. The Q&A covered such broad ground that it could not be accurately summarized and those who missed the presentation missed a truly interesting program.

The recurring theme was that the primary job of the conservator was to do nothing to alter the intent of the artist as well as not make any changes that are not completely reversible. The doctor's Hippocratic Oath of "First, do no harm" came to mind during the evening, and two axioms were shared--the precise wording is escaping me, but one was "Better is the enemy of good". In addition, an impressive variety of technology is used in conservation to examine works, from transmitted and reflected light, to scanning electron microscopes, infrared photography, and even particle accelerators.

The point was made that as museum conservators, they are in the position of being able to monitor their collections and nurse them along with the least intrusive possible repairs. As one presenter noted during the even more informal small group Q&A, "keep me alive until they find a cure so I don't go through what my ancestors went through."

In addition to the 'headline' presenters several other members of the CMA curatorial and conservation staff were present, and one two things were quite clear: First, Cleveland is lucky to have a team that's so personable and willing to discuss their expertise outside of working hours. Second, these people are passionate about their work and the collections that are in their care. I have to think that that comes through in the quality of the collection on display.


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