Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

On the History of Conservation in the Western USA

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

On the History of Conservation in the Western USA

Article excerpt


Recently I received an unsolicited copy of an article on conservation history published in the Journal of Art Historiography, by Seth Adam Hindin.1 This has been embellished by the publication in JAIC of another version of this essay2 which concerns the problems related to the creation of a conservation laboratory at the University of California at Davis in the 1970s. I will focus my comments on the first of these articles as it addresses conservation history directly. I always welcome efforts to relate how the work of individuals in solving conservation problems affects other practitioners and how research by scientists can inform our practice.

The first problem I had with the article published in the Journal of Art Historiography, was the fact that it was mainly about two men who practiced most of their careers in Kansas City, the East Coast or Texas. But one, Muskavitch, was purported to have worked in California where I am located and I was most excited to read of his work here. I was curious, however, that I had never heard of him. I will elaborate on this later on in this essay.

Both articles appear well-researched and written; the author referenced a considerable amount of primary sources and builds a remarkable narrative about the spread of ideas and techniques in the conservation of art. The spread of ideas and their acceptance is affected by culture and personality, as is where a person is born, the status of a field of work, how it is regarded as a possible element in the ideology of a society and the means by which individual discoveries can be communicated and understood at any one time. A common example of this is Gregor Mendel who discovered a number of significant processes in genetics but failed to be understood in his time. Some students of history have argued that Mendel's social position inhibited the dissemination of his discoveries, others that he presented his argument in a statistical format which was unfamiliar to his contemporaries.3 The main problem here, is not that Muskavitch discovered some new methods that he was unable to convince others of their value, rather it is that the assertion that he had any influence on local conservation conflicts with local knowledge about the origins of conservation in the Bay Area and California in general. This is an interesting contradiction and one that deserves investigation.

Practice and theory

In conservation the interplay between the practitioner of treatments that are restorative, what we call today, conservation, has always been restricted and defined by owners, art historians and a variety of connoisseurs, both institutional (e.g. curators) and private (dealers, and simple enthusiasts). In fact, one of the most comprehensive analyses of the role of conservators in treatments and the restrictions placed upon them is Eric C. Hulmer's The Role of Conservation inConnoisseurship,4 though Caple5 has updated this conflict in his book, Conservation Skills (2000). Cesare Brandi's Theory of Conservation (1963) is another approach well worth reading. There is a more recent paperback version.6

Hindin's article in this journal produces a narrative on the influences on art conservation in the west by a number of academic institutions on the East Coast of the USA. While the primary locations for the two men discussed in the article are Texas and Missouri, the thesis breaks down at that point. While one of these individuals, Charles Muskavitch had contact with the ill-fated conservation program at UC Davis and the article claims he established himself at the Crocker Museum, neither presence had much effect on conservation west of St. Louis. There is no doubt that the training efforts at the Fogg Museum, Cooperstown and New York University had influence on conservation in the west as George Stout, Buck, Johnson, Rockwell, Eckmann and Bernstein, among others were trained at these institutions. Nevertheless, the article is on the topic of a much needed investigation of how conservators influenced each other and learned their trades in the period between the pre-WWII and post WWII eras. …

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