HIIOP, H. Methodological approaches in conservation of contemporary art, 2004

Posted on Tue, 10/28/2008 - 16:23

MA Thesis by Hilkka Hiiop
Estonian Academy of Fine Arts, Department of Conservation
Completed in June 2004

Theoretical and methodological approaches in conservation of contemporary art at an international level and applied to contemporary art in Estonia.



Museums of contemporary art all over the world are increasingly facing new challenges with regard to the appropriate long term conservation of their holdings. The objects to be preserved are characterized by an enormous range of materials and ways of combining them. Many of these objects are extremely fragile and ephemeral from a conservation point of view. Although the problem has an exponential development, practicable solutions to face these challenges are still to be found.

Attitudes and practices followed for centuries by art museums to conserve traditional art [1] are under question, not only with regard to technical procedures but mainly from a point of view of the roles and responsibilities of those in charge of preserving contemporary art collections.

The imminent opening of the new Museum of Estonian Art brings this ongoing debate to our country. It becomes urgent to initiate a broad discussion on how to best preserve both, the many objects already in the holdings of this museum and new acquisitions. This discussion must involve museum experts as well as the broad public.

One of the principal aims of this master-thesis is to provide a document that can be used as basis for this discussion. For the first time the problem is studied from an Estonian perspective by setting the international debate into the national context.


By reviewing the different approaches and philosophies in conservation of contemporary art, one can distinguish three methods:

  1. In the 1960s, when the issue was faced for the first time, the approach to the problem was a mainly technically orientated one. The main concern was on the HOW to conserve the constituent materials of the objects and therefore their physical integrity. This approach soon considered to be too narrow and it became evident that other non-technical issues had to be taken into account.
  2. This led to a completely different attitude which focused on a purely philosophical debate from the end of the 1980s on. The WHY became the principal question. However, also this debate was not able to give feasible solutions to the many concrete and more and more urgent problems faced by curators and conservators of contemporary art collections.
  3. In 1999 the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (INCCA) was created with the aim of proposing a methodological strategy based on internationally agreed principles and guidelines.

The focus of the present master-thesis is on the last two methods listed above. The first method, mainly concerned with the physical conservation of constituent materials is considered to be the last step in the process of conserving contemporary art, becoming relevant only when broader philosophical and methodological aspects are clarified.

The first part of the master-thesis introduces study aims as well as key-terms relating to the topic. It describes the dilemma between the diverging attitudes of those creating the art without being concerned about the longevity of their creations and those who attribute values, considering an ever increasing range of objects eligible for conservation.

The second part defines the philosophical issues underlying the current debate by examining a broad range of questions that animate the current debate: What means authenticity in contemporary art? What do we preserve – the original material or the original intent of the artist? Can we accept the aging of materials or do we have to preserve the “newness value” of contemporary art objects? What implications does this new situation have on the professional roles and ethics of the conservator? What role do artist play in the conservation of their own art?

The third part gives an international perspective of the state of the art in conservation of contemporary art with special attention to the findings of the INCCA project. This final part of the thesis makes also an attempt to develop adequate methodologies for the conservation of the contemporary art in Estonia in general and specifically for the contemporary art collection of the Estonian Art Museum.

Main objectives for the study are:

  1. To increase the awareness of all those involved in conservation of contemporary art through better understanding of important philosophical issues, indispensable for the development of strategic methodologies.
  2. To analyze the current situation of conservation of contemporary art worldwide and its implications on the Estonian context.
  3. To initiate a national debate by defining the first steps of a methodology, which takes into account international experience.
  4. To draft the general outline of a possible long term development strategy for conservation of contemporary art in the Estonian Art Museum.

The master-thesis examines the pros and cons of different strategic options instead of trying to provide ready-made solutions. The intention is to familiarize curators, conservators, artists, collectors and interested segments of the general public with the topic in general and with the different arguments of an ongoing debate which is still far from defining agreed standard approaches. Moreover, it provides the necessary elements for developing adequate and feasible solutions for the Estonian context through close multi-disciplinary cooperation amongst key-experts and decision makers.

[1] For this master-thesis the term „contemporary art“ as opposed to „traditional art“ is used for all objects of artistic value composed of non-traditional materials and / or produced with non-traditional techniques. In Estonia non-traditional art practices were introduced only in the late 1960s with the generation of ANK, SOUP and VISARID; earlier, non-traditional materials and techniques were used occasionally without being part of the creative concept.

This MA thesis is in Estonian langauge.
For more information please contact hhiiop@hotmail.com