Must Haves: Conservation Publications

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All book images in this article were provided by  the publishers as listed above.

We live in a time when looking back at the history of IIC and of the conservation profession can also include looking back at a long and rich history of quality publications which have withstood the test of time. It is wonderful to see so many of these books authored and complied by IIC founders, leaders, and members.

This list of ‘must haves’ was put together with the help of several conservation educators from around the world. It is by no means complete, but offers a good start to any conservator’s personal library. To further whet your appetite, we have included five mini-reviews which illustrate the intimate relationships we often form with cherished publications.

We hope you will feel inspired to become reacquainted with some of these books and possibly add a few more to your own shelves.

1942: Painting Materials: A short encyclopedia, by Rutherford Gettens & George Stout (Dover Publishing)
1944: Metals in the Service of Man, by Arthur Street and William Alexander (Penguin UK)
1948: Caring for your Pictures, by George Stout (Columbia University Press)
1963: Theory of Restoration (Teoria del Restauro), by Cesare Brandi (Istituto Centrale per il Restauro/Nardini Editore)
1966: The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art, by Harold Plenderleith and A.E. Warner (Oxford University Press)
1967: The Materials and Techniques of Paintings, by Kurt Wehlte (Kremer Pigments Inc)
1968: The Cleaning of Paintings: Problems and Personalities, by Helmut Ruhemann (Faber and Faber)
1971: Artifacts: an introduction to early materials and technology, by Henry Hodges (Bristol Classical Press / Bloomsbury Publishing Plc)
1978: Museum Environment, by Garry Thomson (Taylor & Francis)
1984: Conservation of Wall Paintings, by Paolo Mora, Laura Mora and Paul Philippot (Butterworths)
1986, 1993, 1997: Artists’ Pigments: A Handbook of their History and Characteristics (Vol 1, 2, 3), ed. Feller, Roy & FitzHugh (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)
1987: The Organic Chemistry of Museum Objects, by John Mills & Raymond White (Elsevier Ltd)
1987: Materials for Conservation, by Velson Horie (Taylor & Francis)
1990: Elements of Archaeological Conservation, by Jane Cronyn (Routledge)
1991: The Manual of Museum Planning, ed. Barry Lord, Gail Dexter Lord and Lindsay Martin (Rowman & Littlefield)
1993: Measured Opinions, Gerry Hedley (UKIC)
1994: Preventive Conservation: practice, theory and research, Preprints IIC Ottawa Congress (Archetype)
1996: Historical and Philosophical issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage, ed. by Nicholas Stanley price, M. Kirby Talley Jr and Alessandra Melucco Vaccaro (Getty)
1998: The Restoration of Paintings (Handbuch der Gemaelderestaurierung), by Knut Nicolaus (Koenemann)
1999: Risk Assessment for Object Conservation, by Jonathan Ashley-Smith. (Routledge)
1999: Modern Art, Who Cares?, ed. By IJsbrand M.C. Hummelen, Dionne Sillé, Marjan Zijlmans (Archetype)
2002: Preserving What is Valued, by Miriam Clavir (UBC Press)
2010: Trade in Artists’ Materials, ed. by Jo Kirby, et al. (Archetype, London)

. . . . .

Historical and Philosophical issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage, Edited by Nicholas Stanley price, M. Kirby Talley Jr and Alessandra Melucco Vaccaro

Review by Sharra Grow

Some of my fondest memories from grad school at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation are of our monthly reading seminars held in the paintings conservation studio. These intimate gatherings were always scheduled in the evening, gathered around the center table with just the paintings conservation students (two or three of us), possibly an intern or assistant professor, and our advising professor Joyce Hill Stoner.

We read and discussed many books and articles, from Measured Opinions by Gerry Hedley, to the National Gallery London’s Art in the Making series, but the book I remember—and still refer to—the most is the Getty’s Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage. As a thoughtfully curated collection of essays, the book provokes discussion and debate; it seemed as though it had been written just for our evening gatherings.

Do you remember the first time you read Alois Riegl’s essay “The Modern Cult of Monuments” in which he lays out his values of monuments (beginning on page 69, for anyone who needs a refresher)? This essay became so fundamental to me that, even though I only had it in English, I included the essay in a conservation workshop I organized in Lima, Peru.

I also owe a great debt to the authors in Part VII of the book which is devoted to patina; this, of course, includes essays by Philippot and Brandi in particular, as well as the underlying contentions between Hell and Ruhemann, which can be felt through much of this section. I have read these essays countless times, and the margins are filled with my own notes and underlining of concepts that became the foundation of a paper I presented on “dirt”. In fact, the seed was first planted for the most profound concept at the heart of my paper while I read Paul Philippot’s “The Idea of Patina and the Cleaning of Paintings”. My small script in blue pen, written in the margins of page 374 reads, “cleaning of ptgs = subject to the artistic taste of the time”.

Aesthetic philosophies and tastes will continue to change and evolve, and perhaps what we consider today to be an unacceptable amount of dirt on an Andy Warhol Brillo Box may be considered treasured patina one hundred years from now. Who’s to say how conservation practices and preferences will change in time? I only hope we still have this great book and reading seminars to ground us.

. . . . .

The Organic Chemistry of Museum Objects, 2nd Edition, By John Mills & Raymond White

Review by Angela Caira

The Organic Chemistry of Museum Objects by Mills and White has become a reference text for those interested in deeply understanding the composition of objects of an organic nature found in collections. In a short number of pages, the authors have managed to describe the chemistry, properties and some historical characteristics of these materials in clear language.

The publication structure introduces the reader to the main chemical concepts of a material before entering the subject of their characterization and identification through analytical methods, which include different radiation and chromatographic separation techniques. The following chapters discuss a large number of materials grouped into chemical classes: oils and fats, natural waxes, bituminous materials, carbohydrate, proteins, natural resins and lacquers, synthetic materials and dyestuffs and other coloured materials.

Within these groupings, descriptions range from general to specific—from how amino acid chains are made to the complex composition of polysaccharides, which are described at a level that is easy to understand, consistent with the rest of the book. Given their complexity and common presence in museum objects, the chapter dedicated to natural resins and lacquers is more extensive; perhaps this is also to be expected considering the major research conducted on the characterization of natural resins by the authors during their careers, working mainly on paintings from Europe.  Asian lacquers—their characterization and the methods used—are also described. However, it is mentioned that this subject, less familiar to the authors, remains under investigation, and some references of significant updates are given. Likewise, synthetic materials have been updated from the first edition, adding more information (although, within this area of conservation there is still a lack of data about polymers).

Many of the materials described in this book are used mainly as treatment materials; this illustrates a different point of view, suggesting that conservation processes and treatments become part of an object’s material nature. Along the same line, the authors describe the properties of some oils and synthetic materials even though they have not yet found them used in museum objects.

The last two chapters of the publication focus on the investigation of deterioration processes, although they are only briefly explained, giving just a brushstroke on the possible agents of deterioration and their consequences. Among the methods described for the analysis of materials and their degradation, GC-MS and HPLC stand out. Details about their use are given, including sample preparation and interpretation of results, showing some graphs from case studies that help the reader become familiar with this type of chromatograms.

This book can be used as a reference when looking for general information (and in some cases, more specific information on those materials which the authors have placed more emphasis). The notes and cited bibliography to which they refer are studies of great importance in the areas of technical art history, heritage chemistry and conservation.

. . . . .

Materials for Conservation, By Velson Horie

Review by Ana Vega Ramiro

Most conservators are, by now, familiar with the book Materials for Conservation by Velson Horie. It has probably come in handy to us all more than once, and as a student I have used it endlessly. It is a fascinating book that unravels the properties of conservation materials and how they affect the treatment of the objects. The book is wisely divided in two parts. The first targets the science of materials, such as polymers or solvents, and when they should be used for conservation treatments. The second part focuses on specific materials, which makes this book great, not only to have on hand as a quick data base, but also as a starting point when studying a material, since it contains an extensive bibliography.

To begin with, I would like to point out that there is already an interesting book review about the 2010 edition of Materials for Conservation, written by Alison Murray. Hence for this review, which is part of the News in Conservation celebration of IIC’s 70th anniversary, I would like to add part of an enriching conversation I recently had with Mr. Horie.

His perspective on the book does not differ much from the reader’s perspective, since he considers the “main role of MfC is translating data and information from technological and scientific sources into the language and applications of conservators”. He recalled that it was a “tremendous amount of scanning and editing of information – resulting in an idiosyncratic output.” For him “the major lacuna is natural materials, since it is only in the past 30-40 years that scientific understanding of the long observed behaviors has developed about these, much from food and medical science, and only some of those advances were incorporated”. He also adds that if there is a new edition, “it will probably be a multi-author book, with an interventive editor who can weave the strands of new knowledge into the range of conservation activities”.

From my point of view, one of the most controversial treatment steps in conservation has always been the cleaning, especially when it concerns varnish removal. That is why, as an emerging conservator, I deeply appreciate the “Solvents” chapter, which helps me understand the process of this treatment while giving insight into the many parameters that have to be controlled in order to dissolve a material. As Horie says, concerning the solubility charts “There are too many variables for an algorithm to be constructed (at least until the “big data” revolution in conservation).  So the data supplied is a starting point for understanding the changes, which will never be completed. The most important input is that of the observant and aware conservator”.

As a highlight in this conversation, Velson has another major concern which is that he “and others had the stability and opportunity to develop and test-drive expertise over decades. This stability has been whittled away for many.  But it is always down to individuals to explore the field in new directions.” I suppose this is not a topic that only concerns him, as many students and emerging conservators see the same problem. We are starting out in the conservation field with many innovative ideas that need the support of experienced conservators. This will not only help us as individuals, but will make way for new research and improvements for the field.

Finally, I would like to add some ideas for inclusion should there be another edition. First, as already mentioned, is to continue updating the book with new information, advances and studies in the field. In addition, this last decade has produced many studies about the use of gels during treatment, so it would be a perfect idea to add a section dedicated to types of gels, their characteristics and properties. Finally, due to recent IT advances—this is a call to conservation specialists—I think it would be quite the upgrade to create an algorithm that helps conservators determine which solvents would work best for individual surface cleanings and other treatments.

. . . . .

Theory of Restoration, By Cesare Brandi

Review by Anastasiya Mogucheva

In front of you lies a stunning book by a great man, Cesare Brandi; a brilliant analyst and philosopher. During his work as director of the Central Institute for Restoration in Rome, he wrote several works focused on the restoration field. One of them is Theory of Restoration which was first published in 1963 and has not lost its relevance; on the contrary, it has confirmed the well-known saying, "not everything that is new is talented, but everything that is talented, is new."

Throughout his life Cesare Brandi (1906-1988) observed his world as an intellectual working in the field of art and addressing issues of its preservation and restoration. His reflections on aesthetics and ethics through the issues of restoration practices leads the reader to interesting discoveries regarding the structure and appearance of a work of art. Inevitably, with Brandi, questions will arise: what are we restoring—marble or an antique statue? Do we need a Renaissance painting to look the way it did when it was first created, or do we want to see the patina and feel the distance of time and space which separate us from its creator? And what is more valuable – aesthetics or history?

To achieve answers to such questions, Cesare Brandi emphasizes that investigation and in situ analyses should take priority when evaluating your work. However, many conservators know that their work is often judged solely by the reintegration because that is what is visible to the viewer. Brandi touches on this aspect in the chapter “The Potential Oneness of a Work of Art”. The ideas in this chapter have many good strategical thoughts to which we can refer.

When reading this book, we plunge into the depths and intricacies of the author's thoughts. It is not so easy to get through them, but when you reach the end, you can feel that you yourself have become a subversive intellectual. Indeed, in this world not everything is a straight line, and so the author's thoughts create new connections, linking our disparate world with the harmony of art.

What this book does not do is give guidelines on how to restore art. Rather, this book holds inspirational content on how to understand our own steps and decisions, especially in reference to history.  In Italian conservation, and in other conservation institutions, this book is still a ”must-read”, as it acts as a foundation during discussions about procedures that will follow in practical restoration.

This book will make you think, empathize, get involved and try to find the answers yourself, thus confirming the idea that art is only as important as the attitude towards it. We feel time in a continuum, and it makes us endlessly ask the question that Cesare Brandi was so concerned about; what is the phenomenon of artistic creativity? The author aims to have a dialogue with his reader, so as you read, be prepared to spend time with the smartest of interlocutors.

. . . . .

The Museum Environment, By Garry Thomson

Review by María Paula Arthur

At a time when conservation was still developing as a field, Garry Thomson hoped in his preface “that this book may do a small amount to correct the aim of science in conservation”. Now fast-forward almost 40 years, and not only has this book underpinned the development of environmental management, but it is still being referenced today (a quick and informal search shows me it’s been cited over 1200 times). So, why is that?

The Museum Environment was first published in 1978 and revised in 1986 as part of the Butterworth-Heinemann Series in Conservation and Museology, in association with IIC. Rooted in a growing awareness of the importance of climate control, this book brought together all the then-current research related to the effects of environmental factors on museum objects; essentially what would soon be developed under the category “preventive conservation”.

It was, in fact, while taking my first conservation course at university that I first read fragments of Thomson’s book (back when I had no idea what a lux was, no inkling that thermo-hygrometers existed or that they used a bunch of hair to measure RH or that ozone could be generated by electrical equipment).

This book is structured in two parts; we follow our main protagonists—namely light, humidity and pollutants—mostly through a museum exhibit setting, and explore the relationship between the environment and various kinds of heritage objects.

In the first part, the author touches on the potentially damaging effects of these environmental factors by explaining the scientific facts behind decay and how they actually affect museum objects while at the same time providing us with principles and strategies for environmental control so that those effects may be prevented or at least minimized. Because this part was written for a general audience, explanations are very simple and straightforward (a fact that my student self was very grateful for at the time).

Now the second part is where things get more technical and science-oriented, with multiple charts and calculations. We are warned, though; the author prefaces the book by acknowledging that this section is intended for workers in the field of conservation research, and so it is assumed the reader will have some background on these topics. That doesn't mean, however, that it is hard to follow; as with the first part, we gradually arrive at more complex subjects through friendly and accessible language, including examples and analogies.

Admittedly, there are some specific points in the book that have become outdated since its publication, and inevitably so. Seeing as technology is growing exponentially, and devices are being regularly upgraded, mentions of pieces of equipment available at the time were bound to become obsolete. For instance, while exploring the topic of computers in environmental control, floppy disks are suggested as the preferred means of permanent storage data. Here we are four decades later; digital data storage has skyrocketed with the use of clouds, and we are preserving floppy disks as heritage objects. The same goes with some general level guidelines and specifications which are constantly being revised, updated or questioned, as defining environmental standards continues to be a subject for debate.

What is still relevant, on the other hand, is much broader. Aside from the scientific facts, the main ideas supporting the book remain aligned with the ethical principles and criteria for conservation that we still follow today. I also found the last chapter interesting, in which Garry ventures to imagine the future of environmental management; he briefly acknowledges the undesirable amount of energy and expense required to maintain environmental conditions and hopes the trend will lean “towards simplicity, reliability and cheapness”. A very pertinent suggestion, as sustainability is an on-going concern currently being discussed worldwide, and which even had its own session in last month's IIC 2020 Edinburgh Congress.

It is this lasting relevance and popularity that sticks out the most to me. The Museum Environment played a key role in providing a much needed summary and starting point for both environmental management and research. And it did so with a rational and accessible approach so it could reach both bigger and smaller museums. Its foundation seems so strong that it is easy to adapt it to newer times and circumstances, and so we find ourselves coming back to it.

(See the full article in the special 70th anniversary issue of "News in Conservation" December-January 2021, Issue 81, p. 50-57)


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We live in a time when looking back at the history of IIC and of the conservation profession can also include looking back at a long and rich history of quality publications which have withstood the test of time. It is wonderful to see so many of these books authored and complied by IIC founders, leaders, and members.
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