Conference: Cabinet, Elaboratory, Gallery 1500-1800
The Preservation of Art and Material Culture in Europe
The idea that the conservation and the material exploration of collected objects is mostly a twentieth century development has become disproportionately represented in the growing literature on the history of conservation. Great scientific advances in conservation and related materials analysis were made in nineteenth and twentieth centuries by various museum directors, conservators and chemists. These periods have emphatically delineated the marriage of science and conservation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the dominant narrative. The legacy of earlier periods remains relatively unexplored in the scholarly output of art history, history and philosophy of science, and that of conservation. The early modern and modern periods offer many examples of concerted efforts to investigate and to preserve. Often with one facilitating the other. Discovery, collection, documentation and preservation were key activities that heralded the birth of the modern public museum, of which the Ashmolean is believed to be earliest.
It is evident from historical accounts, that varying levels of physical of care – that today we consider to be preventive or interventive in nature - were devoted to certain objects. This is true of both new institutional settings and in other publicly accessible collections. Their records chronicle the physical manipulation, deterioration, preservation, condition-recording and sometimes the elective disposal of these specimens and works of art. This raises important questions about the changing significance of the physicality of object, the rejection and remedying of deterioration, or the toleration of it, either as an inevitable by-product of handling and investigation, or through other agents of the destruction that at the time, could not be halted or minimised. Physical maintenance of collections’ spaces and new methods of display also demonstrates the nascence of collections management and care as a whole.
Exciting conference papers address questions such as how was materiality, condition, alteration and disrepair viewed during this period? What measures constituted conservation activity or materials analysis in this period? What factors motivated these efforts? Who had agency to carry out or direct these interventions? Which materials and techniques were used? What can be learnt from recipes and notes dealing with problems such as materials alteration? Did techniques evolve or improve, or were they phased out and abandoned? What influenced their use? Were wider political or societal messages closely connected to material preservation or investigation? What does this tell us about material culture and about the changing cultural and scientific roles of individual categories of object in this period?