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Bay Area Conservation History: Hindin Article

History of Conservation in the Bay Area

Recently I received a copy of an article on conservation history published in the Journal of Art Historiography, by Seth Adam Hindin, “How the West Was Won: Charles Muskavitch, James Roth, and the Arrival of ‘Scientific art Conservation in the Western United States”, number 11, December 2014. 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. This is a well researched and written work, the author referenced a considerable amount of primary sources and builds a remarkable narrative. The spread of ideas and their acceptance is affected by culture and personality, that 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. 

  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in treatments and the restrictions placed upon them is Eric C. Hulmer’s The Role of Conservation in Connoisseurship (unpublished dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1955), though Caple has updated this conflict in his book, Conservation Skills (2000).

    The article 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 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 established himself at the Crocker Museum, neither presence had much effect on conservation west of St. Louis. Nevertheless, the article is a much needed investigation of how conservators influenced each other and learned their trades in the immediate pre-WWII and post WWII eras.

     What is missing is a more focused examination of East Coast practice and theory which is presented as fairly uniform. One might contrast this view by Hindin with that by Laurence Kanter (“Some Early Sienese Paintings: Cleaned, Uncleaned, Restored, Unrestored. What Have We Learned?”Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, Series, Time Will Tell: Ethics and Choices in Conservation, (2010: 46-65). Kanter speaking of the same time period as Hindin represents a conservation field blustered by fashion in practice and not the science Hindin portrays. Kanter describes the destruction of the paintings treated in the pursuit of subjective goals which he called an “archaeological approach” but really means the practitioners justified cleanings that removed all identified “overpaint” to exposed some idealized original surface. In my training in archaeology we were taught that every site was destroyed by excavation and that scientific digging required extensive documentation and publication. Perhaps the Yale conservators had a different view. Kantor describes American conservation practice of the time by use of a quote from Giovanni Previtali, from 1967:

If we wish to imagine a sadistic restorer (or simply one from America) ruthlessly attacking the Magdalen frescoes until they were reduced to a mere shadow, we could be certain to achieve something very similar to another Peruzzi Chapel “after treatment.”

   But while Previtali’s description was not unique, it like Hindin’s article paints too broad a bush and overrepresents certain museum practitioners and their influence. Certainly people like George Stout were important, and his book like Plenderleith’s affected practice across the globe (Keiko Keyes told me that Plenderleith’s book was what drew her to conservation). I go over the diversity of publications in my 1989 article, “Textbooks in Conservation: some concerns,” The Bulletin of the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials, v. 15, n. s. 3&4, pp51-8. What also is missing from Hindin’s article are the individual contributions of European conservators who relocated to the USA, people like Ruhemann and his 1968 book. One aspect of Hindin’s paper that I find disturbing is his retelling of criticisms of Muskavitch’s work. These are entirely subjective and like that of Previtali (but unlike those of Kanter) are not accompanied by any standard or analysis. But this is to be expected as such criticisms have been the usual business in conservation along with snide remarks of people’s competency. Though in recent years standards to evaluate treatments have been forthcoming (as I suggested in my 1989 article and as I performed with one example in my 1997 article on ceramic and glass conservation in Studies. I had hoped when Reviews in Conservation appeared that we would have a venue for such studies, with reviews of literature and treatments over time. The first issues stoked this impression with numbers 1, 2 & 3 containing majority articles on such topics and most articles on treatments. But by 2008 Reviews had retreated to the same fare as JAIC and Studies with most articles on art history or scientific analysis with little reference or application to treatment. There have been numerous articles over the years that have reviewed treatments in limited fashion, as in the collection published by the British Museum as Occasional Paper n. 65, Early Advances in Conservation, edited by Vincent Daniels in 1988, and the 2003 issue of the JAIC that contained a number of articles reviewing treatments. However, this is far from a systematic analysis of long term effects or standards of outcomes in the context of practitioner variation in treatment application as we find in other fields of science.

For the West Coast our history is yet to be written and I would hope that someone will attempt it. At the foundation of our the Western Association of Art Conservators in 1975 founders George Stout, Richard Buck and Ben Johnson were all present. I do not know why Buck was there and have no knowledge of any work he did on the West Coast. I think many practitioners here were self taught or apprenticed to self taught individuals using the available literature. For myself at the De Young Museum Henry Rusk (trained as a painter at the San Francisco Art Institute in the 1920s) was the conservator in the 1930s to 60s when he trained a surgical nurse, Terri Picante who I worked with in the 1970s & 1980s after having trained under Bob Schenk (who trained at the Field Museum) at the California Academy of Sciences in the early 1970s but introduced to conservation of archaeological materials by J. Desmond Clark at the old Kroeber Museum at UC Berkeley from 1966 to 1970. Picante told me she did some work with Stout when he came to the De Young but all the conservation records for the De Young were destroyed by a conservator from the east who was hired to replace Picante by Charles Moffett, a curator who came to the De Young in the mid 1980s. I tried to save them but had no authority to do so.   I think that other than by former colleague Tony Rockwell (who trained with the Kecks and worked at the SF Modern in the 1970s, the other major East Coast influence was in the formation of the Western Regional Paper Conservation Laboratory at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in the late 1960s by Roy Perkinson.

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