Conserving Beauty

USC Fisher Museum of Art
USC Fisher Museum of Art

October 28, 2011-Spring 2012

Museums are the guardians of significant collections of objects that comprise the cultural history of mankind. Among the museum’s primary responsibilities is the preservation of these objects for future generations. To succeed in this portion of their mission, museum professionals have established standards for the care, handling, installation and shipping of objects to prevent accidents and minimize potential damage. We install climate control systems in our exhibition and storage spaces and limit exposure to damaging ultra-violet (UV) lights to minimize deterioration caused by our environment. We exercise controls for access to the objects, even asking that our visitors “do not touch.” And we hire conservators and restorers to repair what damage we could not prevent.

The master paintings in our collections have been in our care for but a fraction of their actual existence. Many objects were in private households where the humidity, light levels, and temperature are controlled for the comfort of humans, rather than art, and where a variety of factors could contribute to the deterioration of the object over a great period of years–pollution, cigarette smoke, excessive heat or cold. As with all museums, we are only able to protect an object once it comes to us and, fortunately, once damage is repaired, museums can minimize and often eliminate the destructive factors which cause damage over the long haul, thereby limiting the number of face lifts an object may need over its lifetime.

To restore or not to restore? This is a question facing museum curators, collection managers, and conservators on a daily basis. Aside from the factor of expense (many smaller museums do not have conservators on staff and must raise funds to hire professionals), there are issues related to the object’s preservation that must be considered. Can the required repairs be executed to enable the greatest aesthetic enjoyment of the object without jeopardizing this same enjoyment? Will it help stabilize and preserve the object for future generations, or will the procedure accelerate the deterioration? Is the required treatment urgent and essential to the mere existence of the object? Finally, is there something that can be done, or are the materials too fragile or unstable to even attempt treatment?

The most conservative of conservators will only agree to treat an object if the benefit of doing so exceeds solely aesthetic improvements. As such, conservation is a priority for objects in need of repair from accidental damage (such as fire or water damage) or cumulative damage (such as prolonged exposure to light, pest invasions, or the slow but constant changes which occur as a painting ages). It is the greatest priority when the object is on a path of destruction. In the end, though the ultimate benefit of treatment is the preservation of the object, it is most notably the increased beauty of the composition that gets noticed.

Since the mid-1970s, the USC Fisher Museum of Art has conscientiously acted to preserve and restore objects in the permanent collection requiring major and minor repairs. The greatest majority of conservation treatments on our collections have been required due to prolonged exposure to environmental hazards such as frequent and dramatic changes to the climate and pollutants. On display in this gallery is a selection of the objects preserved through conservation. Object labels include information about the treatment process and factors influencing the decision to restore. Conservators’ options for conservation treatments depend on the material supports of the paintings, such as panel, canvas, or copper plate. There are very limited options in the case of works on copper plates for example. In some cases, conservators recommend against cleaning a work, as in the case of our 18th century painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Patrick Blake, Bart.