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Conservation Takes a Reflective Turn
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Francesca Bewer's new book, published jointly in 2010 by Harvard Art Museum and Yale University Press, takes a step in a new direction for conservation literature. A Laboratory for Art: Harvard's Fogg Museum and the Emergence of Conservation in America, 1900-1950 traces the development of the Conservation Department in the Fogg Museum from its beginnings to just after World War II. That history is told largely by following the personal and professional growth of one man, Edward Waldo Forbes, and those he gathered around him during his tenure as the director of the Fogg Museum from 1909 to 1944. As Bewer (pronounced BAY.ver) points out, Forbes came from good stock—a Boston Brahmin and the grandson of the Transcendentalist poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson—and his grounding in the American Enlightenment played a large part in shaping both his character and ultimately that of the Fogg's Conservation Department.

The book contains a preface and five chapters, each chapter dealing with approximately a decade of the life of the Conservation Department. The preface is not to be overlooked, as it establishes two important themes for the book, and, though often undervalued or unstated, guiding principles for the practice of conservation: "Whether works of art are transformed by nature or by human intervention, they never endure in their original state," and "The care of artworks—their cleaning, repair, and preservation—is inevitably an act of interpretation, influenced by philosophical, historical, artistic, and scientific ideas as well as the tastes of a particular time and place."

"Forbes Takes on Flaking Paint (1899-1910)," chapter 1, first discusses Forbes's apparent epiphany when he wished to purchase a painting that was in poor condition. He quickly came to learn that there was little consensus on approaches to conservation to damaged works of art. Much was left to the subjective domain of the restorer, and, as a young man steeped in the Enlightenment confidence in science, he sought to bring its "objectivity" to bear on art conservation. The late nineteenth century was also a time Americans began to take a strong interest in collecting art, but many, like Forbes himself, lacked the experience and sophistication of European collectors. Feeling the discomfort of the uninitiated, Forbes also thought that a greater understanding of the materials and methods of art objects through science would assist in their authentication, heretofore left to connoisseurs like his highly regarded Cambridge compatriot Bernard Berenson.

In chapter 2,"The Museum as Laboratory (1910s)," Bewer outlines the background for Forbes's model of conservation— studio art or understanding of craft, experimental science, and art history—later dubbed the three-legged stool of conservation education by George Stout (see below). Forbes did not leave theory behind in establishing the Fogg's approach to conservation, as he was well aware of the conflict between Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc and the attempted compromise offered by Camillo Boito. What Forbes stressed, and why he felt so strongly that these activities should take place in the university, is that transparency of thought and action in conservation was of the utmost importance for both the general public and the specialist. This transparency was in sharp contrast to the more secretive world of restorers of his time.

The next chapter, "Good Chemistry: Attracting Like Minds (1920s)," shows how Forbes brought together the core team of the Fogg that would be the heart and soul of the Conservation Department for nearly thirty years. Forbes first obtained the services of Daniel Thompson, trained as an undergraduate in chemistry at Harvard, who would apply that knowledge to medieval painting techniques and later pen The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting. Soon after, Alan Burroughs joined the Fogg staff. Continuing Forbes's desire to apply science to art, Burroughs specialized in the examination of paintings and objects using X-rays to reveal underlying layers or structural features. While Thompson and Burroughs played key roles in the development of the Fogg as a center for the technical study of art and the development of a more scientific foundation for conservation, it was the addition of George Stout and Rutherford Gettens that finally put the institution on the map...


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