True Colors: Trends in Conservation

By Ivy Nguyen, class of 2013.Cantor Arts Center Conservation Lab

In front of the Conservation Lab we have three signs with the following words and their definitions:

Conservation: Conservation is the deliberate alteration of the chemical and/or physical aspects of cultural property, primarily to stabilize it and to prolong its existence.

Preservation: Preservation is the protection of cultural property against deterioration and damage by providing preventative care:

  • regulating environmental conditions
  • practicing sound handling and maintenance procedures for storage, exhibition, packing and transport
  • controlling pests
  • preparing for emergencies

Restoration: Restoration involves treatment procedures that are intended to return cultural property to a known or assumed state—for example, near to its original appearance—often through the addition of non-original material. In current restoration practice, all additions are fully removable.

The collection and stewardship of art involves a complex interplay between these three different goals. While the distinction between these three areas seems subtle, different combinations of these goals will ultimately determine how the object is treated to maintain it for future generations.

This interplay between conservation, preservation, and restoration has varied—sometimes dramatically—over time. One infamous case in the area of Greco-Roman marble sculpture—the Vatican collections—represents this evolution well.

The Vatican’s story was briefly alluded to in the “True Colors” exhibition. Long a major collector of fine art, its collections were headed in the 18th century by Johann Joaquim Winckelmann, who published the influential “Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture” in 1755. In this book, Winckelmann stated that the best marble sculpture should be white, which led to a systematic scrubbing of many pieces in the collection and set the standard for others to follow.

Since much of this work rests on how “good” the object is made to look, the practice of caring for these objects is also inextricably tied to changing tastes. One great example of how differing tastes guide the hand of those who care for art objects is the case of the Hope Hygieia, which is now at the Getty Museum. When the sculpture was uncovered in 1797, it was popular practice to restore such broken ancient sculptures by reconstructing missing parts in marble and attaching those pieces to the original sculpture. In the 1970s, however, the prevailing museum aesthetic was to display these pieces as they were found—any modern restoration was considered a falsification of the truth. As such, many restorations—including the Hope Hygieia’s—were removed.

Thirty years later, conservators and curators are beginning to appreciate these reconstruction attempts as intrinsic to the object’s history and worked to restore the reconstructed pieces of the sculpture, which had been saved when they were removed. A more detailed history of the sculpture can be found at the Getty’s website (

These restorations of the reconstruction were done using easily identifiable and reversible methods, which reflects the current trend in museum practice. And although the balance between restoration, conservation, and preservation remain in flux, that balance also means that you will not be seeing original sculptures repainted anytime soon.

Join in on the conversation: should we attempt to restore works of art to their original state, or are the changes throughout history just as important?  What do you think about performing a restoration as opposed to leaving or improving an old one?  What other ways museums might illustrate or perform these changes based on new technologies?

Casey, Christopher (October 30, 2008). “”Grecian Grandeurs and the Rude Wasting of Old Time”: Britain, the Elgin Marbles, and Post-Revolutionary Hellenism”.Foundations. Volume III, Number 1

One response to “True Colors: Trends in Conservation

  1. Pingback: Johann Joaquim Winckelmann « Cross Sections·

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