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25.07.2017

Tru Vue Blog: Conservation through the Megalethoscope

Katharine Lockett ACR, Tru Vue CPD grantee reflects on new perspectives gained from attending this year's AIC Annual meeting. 

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“Treatment 2017: Innovation in Conservation and Collection Care” was the theme of this year’s American Institute of Conservation of Historic Art Works (AIC) 45th Annual Meeting in Chicago. It was a fantastic three days of international presentations focusing on preventative and interventive treatments undertaken by conservators working in the private and public sector. All the conservation disciplines were represented: Architecture, Book and Paper, Collection Care, Electronic Media, Objects, Paintings, Photographic Materials, Scientific research, Textiles, Wooden Artefacts.

The meeting began with the Award Ceremonies and General Sessions which included the conservation of paintings, paper and objects ranging from the 21st to the 15th Century. We heard about the role of conservation and preventive conservation measures required to smooth the way for the re- opening of the renovated Harvard Art Museums in 2014, the restoration of part of a World War II Aeroplane, conservation of a Matisse cut-out, an Anselm Kiefer painting, and the Ghent Altarpiece. The vast majority of presentations involved in-depth treatments and were really interesting in their complexity and level of intervention.

The Opening Reception was hosted at The Art Institute of Chicago on a beautiful sunny evening after the first day. This was a chance to meet new people as well as old friends from Newcastle (some I hadn't seen for twenty years), fellow interns and colleagues from when I studied in Boston and SFMOMA, and friends from the UK. There was delicious food and wine and we able to chat in the garden or walk around the new galleries. As always, conservators were privileged to enjoy good conversations, tasty food and wine in stunning surroundings.

Karl Buchberg, recently retired Head of Paper Conservation from MoMA, discussed how conservation of MoMA’s “The Swimming Pool” (1952) provided the genesis of the exhibition “Henri Matisse: The cut-outs”. I had loved this exhibition when it toured to Tate Modern so it was fascinating to learn about the conservation treatment of “ The Swimming Pool”. The talk highlighted the importance of conservation records allowing past treatments to be assessed prior to carrying out treatment. It also underlined the value of museums collecting information from the artists, or artist’s studios, about their materials, techniques and original intent. In this case, MoMA consulted notes from Madame Matisse and Matisse’s assistant about how the cutouts were made, removed from the dinning room at Cimiez-Nice, and mounted before they were purchased by MoMA in 1975.

Paula De Cristofaro’s talk “What would Anselm Do? Revisiting the treatment of Osiris and Isis” illustrated the complexities of looking after oversized contemporary works of art and the involvement of living artists in their continued care. SFMOMA’s huge double-panelled mixed media painting by Anselm Kiefer which has oil paint, acrylic paint, ceramic pieces, electrical wires and a TV motherboard attached to the surface has required conservation treatment over the years due to its size, complexity and vulnerability. The recent conservation treatment of the piece was required to allow it to be loaned to the Royal Academy exhibition in London in 2014. Further treatment was carried out in situ with Kiefer’s assistant at the Royal Academy.

The Book and Paper and Photographic Materials presentations included papers that explored various facets of conservation treatments and collection care programs intended to prolong the lifetime of works of art on paper. “Characterisation of the Aniline Dyes in the Coloured Papers of Jose Posda’s Prints Using Time of Flight-Secondary Ion Mass Spectroscopy to Aid in Developing a Treatment Protocol for the Removal of Oxidised Tapes.” After discussing the methodology and scientific analysis used in identifying the dyes present in the Jose Posada prints (1852-1913), Stacey Kelly went on to describe testing the effectiveness of using different solvents to remove the tapes safely without causing staining or effecting the media. Since pressure sensitive tapes on poor quality papers with sensitive media is common this was very interesting as a practical solution to a problem we encounter time and time again.

There were two talks “Providing Access to ‘Over protected’ colour slides” and “Reattaching without adhesive? Yes we can! The reactivation of paint on animation cels” where short close up videos demonstrated very clearly how the conservator carried out the treatment.  One illustrated how tape residues were removed from Kodak colour slides, and the other how lifting paint was smoothed back down with a colour shaper onto a film cel from Disney’s “Bambi”. A (moving) picture is worth a thousand words and meant you really understood what they had done - I think more short films in presentations would be useful when a speaker wishes to illustrate a particular technique.

Jonathan Ashley-Smith’s talk “What is so Ethical About Doing Nothing?” raised the debate about conservators losing practical skills, especially those working in institutions in the UK.  He warned the US not to follow our footsteps as doing nothing in certain situations can be potentially more damaging. Many of the paper talks covered practical treatments applicable to paper conservators in museums and private practise. Certainly the presentations in Chicago gave the overall impression that conservators in the private and public sector in America and Europe do still carry out interventive treatments.

I particularly enjoyed the Photographic talks - the incredible beauty of Edward Curtis’s photogravures on Gampi paper was brought to light by Rachel Danzing’s talk which discussed treating a group of the photographs and the problems of flattening them after washing. Between 1907-1930, Edward Curtis attempted to document the surviving Native American groups before their  way of life was lost forever.

Never having heard of a “Megalethoscope” before, they featured in two presentations! The megalethoscope is an optical apparatus designed by Carlo Ponti of Venice around 1862. Albumen photographs are viewed through a large lens, which creates the optical illusion of depth and perspective. These viewers and photographic slides are now very rare. Monique Fisher’s talk “The Re-creation and Conservation of a Megalethoscope” was fascinating as we saw how an albumen slide was recreated in order to understand their construction and thereby conserve the damaged originals. It was amazing to see a photograph of St Mark’s Square in Venice seen by day and then, by opening and closing flaps on the megalethoscope, St Marks lit up at night.

Attending the AIC Annual Meeting in Chicago was a fantastic opportunity made possible by generous support of CPD grants provided by the York Consortium for Conservation and Craftsmanship, Icon, Tru Vue and the Anna Plowden Trust/Cloth Workers Foundation. The meeting was beneficial and re-invigorating for my professional development as a mid-career conservator specialising in Works of Art on Paper because of the breadth of talks and information gathered on a wide range of media and supports. It was fantastic to have time in the evenings and breaks to catchup with old friends and meet new people over the three days in the amazing city of Chicago.

Katharine Lockett ACR is an independent paper conservator in Kirkbymoorside, North Yorkshire.

Lead Image: Description of Ponti's Megalethoscope, Public Domain
Image 1: Katherine Lockett ACR

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