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Conservation: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Updated: May 15, 2019

Restoration and conservation of art work is a big deal these days. Once upon a time it was something that was done in a museum lab, out of sight and out of the minds of visitors. Conservators use a combination of science, technology, artistic know how, and art history to restore works that have been damaged, become dirty, or faded over the years. Due to some high profile conservation projects on major works of art, conservators are now in the spotlight. But before we discuss the professional conservator and their work, let’s look back at a well meaning woman whose non-professional conservation project went horribly wrong.

In 2012 a parishioner at Santuario de la Misericordia, a Roman Catholic Church in Borja, Spain, took it upon herself to restore an Ecce homo, a depiction of Christ right before the crucifixion. The 80 year old was upset that the image was chipped and cracking and decided she would fix it. According to her she had the permission of the priest. This was the result:

Ecce Homo, Jesus Christ, Fresco
Ecce homo​ - image from the New York Times

As you can see restoration isn’t for the faint of heart. It is instead for professionals who have been trained to conserve our most valuable cultural and historic items. The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam which houses a large collection of works by Rembrandt including The Night Watch; one of his most well known paintings. The Night Watch is constantly monitored for signs of deterioration or any changes in appearance. Recently some areas have started to blanch and the museum wants to take a closer look at these areas and decide what their next steps should be.

But because The Night Watch is such a popular attraction at the museum they are going to build a special glass chamber to house the work while it is being restored. This will allow visitors to continue to see the work and view the restoration process which will also be streamed live. You can read more about the restoration of The Night Watch here:

The Night Watch by Rembrandt
The Night Watch by Rembrandt image courtesy of the BBC and image copyrighted to the Rijksmuseum

Museums have become more aware of the interest their patrons and visitors have about what goes on behind the scenes. Many institutions are now documenting their work in live streams, video diaries, and tours of conservation areas. This brings a new facet to the museum and art experience. Visitors are now able to see the work that has gone into cleaning and conserving either a famous piece of art or one of their personal favorites. It is quite satisfying to watch a work come to life with cleaning and care. I hope you tune in while The Night Watch is being restored, I know I will.

conservation professional Ecco Homo Rijksmuseum

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