Project: Conservation of Modern Art (SBMK) (1997)

Posted on Wed, 09/05/2007 - 08:30
Carried out by the Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art (SBMK), The Netherlands in 1996-97.
Contact: Paulien 't Hoen
In 1996-97 the Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art carried out the interdisciplinary research project 'Conservation of Modern Art' . Ten objects were investigated and proposals for treatment formulated. Next to that, the project resulted in a Decision-making model and Models for registration. The project was followed by the international symposium and publication ‘Modern Art: Who Cares?’.
The conservation of contemporary art poses new and often complicated problems for museums. Twentieth-century artists use a wide variety of materials, giving them totally individual artistic meaning. Modern art differs from traditional art in that the significance of the materials and methods used is no longer clear-cut. This has far-reaching consequences for the preservation of contemporary art collections.
The Project 'Conservation of Contemporary Art' was set up as a result of a discussion between the curator of sculpture of the Kröller-Müller Museum and a free-lance conservator. The discussion concerned the conservation of a work by Sol LeWitt, executed directly on a wall. The work was smeared with dirty finger-marks and it was discussed how it should be cleaned. The curator's view was that it could be newly constructed, as it was a work of conceptual art. The concept is the work in written form which can be executed by others. The fysical work executed on the wall is not the work itself, but only a representation of it. The conservator objected to this view on restoration and she felt it was not in line with present codes of restoration ethics. As other objects in the collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum also raised conservation problems for which there were no ready-made solutions, the curator asked fellow curators whether they too were faced with the same problems. This indeed proved to be the case.
Participants of the project
In 1993 a working group was set up consisting of curators and conservators from a small number of museums of modern art. All could point to various relevant cases within their own museums. At the meetings there were lively, sometimes even fierce discussions concerning the dilemmas confron-ting curators and conservators when seeking ways to tackle the problem of decaying collections. Within six months the working group had been enlarged to include representatives of almost all of the museums of modern art in the Netherlands. In order to permit a wide-ranging approach to the problems, a number of Dutch museums and research institutions decided to pool their resources in the Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art. Set up in 1995, the Foundation has since then carried out the project 'Conservation of Modern Art', an investigation of ten museum objects representing complex conservation problems. The results obtained from this project formed the basis of the symposium 'Modern Art: Who Cares?’, the aim of which is to promote international co-operation in the conservation of modern art.
Problems concerning the preservation of works of contemporary art could be defined as follows:
  1. A lack of criteria for the conservation of 'non-traditional objects in contemporary art'.
  2. Too little insight into the nature and extent of the use of new materials.
  3. Inaccessibility of knowledge concerning the composition and ageing of modern materials.
  4. The absence of an inventory of specialist know-how.
  5. A shortage of well educated conservators for modern art.
After having defined these problems, the working group made a start with the Project 'Conservation of Modern Art'.
  1. The research project was based on ten pilot objects representing a range of ethical and aesthetic problems, as well as problems related to the characteristics of materials.
  2. The project was characterised by an interdisciplinary approach by conservation specialists, conservators, art historians, scientists, legal experts and philosophers.
  3. One of the aims of the project was to develop a methodology for the conservation of contemporary art. To this end a Decision-making model, a Model for data registration and a Model for condition registration have been developed.
Ten pilot projects on the conservation of modern art
The following ten objects were selected for the Project 'Conservation of Modern Art'.
  1. 'Città irreale', Mario Merz 1968 (Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam) This suspended object consists of a triangular metal frame covered with gauze. Wax has been applied to the gauze. Neon tubes pushed through the gauze form the words 'città irreale'. The neon tube is becoming discoloured, the beeswax is dis-integrating and the tulle discolours and breaks.
  2. 'Gismo', Jean Tinguely 1960 (Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam) Tinguely's machine is made up of a large number of iron parts, including a rectangular framework and wheels of various sizes. There is evidence of rust formation, wear and loss of material and parts.
  3. 'Still life of water melons', Piero Gilardi 1967 (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam) The melon field, originally painted in bright colours, is made of foam plastic. The foam plastic has dried out. Any form of transport or contact may cause a piece to break off. An additional problem is that the object retains dust or perhaps even attracts it.
  4. 'M.B', Marcel Broodthaers 1970 (Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht) The black letters M.B. are shown in relief on a pair of plastic plaques. One plaque has a black background, the other a white background. The plastic is degrading. The nature of the material is unknown. The plaques are suspended by means of small circular holes. Owing to the degradation of the plastic the holes are now very brittle; one has already broken.
  5. 'One space, four places', Tony Cragg 1982 (Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven) The object represents a table and four chairs. This 'furniture' is made from many different kinds of waste materials, including various plastics and sponge. The materials used are rapidly disintegrating.
  6. 'Morocco', Krijn Giezen 1972 (Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem) The object is a chipboard cabinet covered with fabric and containing many different items, such as drawings, tools, a bird and a bunch of herbs. The items are attached with wire. Chipboard is acidic and is damaging the fabric, the wire is rusting and many of the items have disintegrated.
  7. '59-18', Henk Peeters 1959 (Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage / ICN) The object is made of foam rubber, a material much used in the 60s and 70s. The foam rubber is degrading, as a result of which cracks have appeared.
  8. 'Ice machine', Willem Barentz's winter on Novaya Zemlya, Woody van Amen 1969 (Centraal Museum Utrecht) The machine is a large cabinet made of aluminium and perspex. It contains: fluorescent tubes, mechanical parts, two compartments filled with hay, a freezing unit now no longer working, a perspex drip-tray and imitation wooden blocks. Insects might have got into the hay and the freezing unit is broken.
  9. 'Campi arati e canali di irrigazione', Pino Pascali 1968 (Kröller- Müller Museum, Otterlo) The object consists of corrugated asbestos sheets, covered with a layer of earth, and iron basins filled with aniline blue water. Asbestos, used in the sheets, is carcinogenic; some of the basins are so rusty that they can no longer be filled with water.
  10. 'Achrome', Manzoni 1962 (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo) The Achrome consists of tufts of glass wool attached to polystyrene. The flat background is covered in red velvet. A perspex cover protects the work. Despite the cover, the glass wool has become very dirty: the hairs have stuck together. It is not clear whether the work can be cleaned and if so how this should be done.
The investigation on the objects consisted of:
  • The registration of data and the description of the condition of the objects.
  • The investigation on the composition and 'life expectancy' of the materials including an attempt to the determination of the meaning of the work.
  • A careful diagnosis of the conservation problems and possibilities for conservation.
All this resulted in a plan for treatment, including guidelines for storage and exhibition. For some objects no solutions to the conservation problem could be found. * Regrettably one object, '59-18' by Henk Peeters, proved to be beyond conservation. According to the working group the material had been deteriorated to such a degree that none of the technical possibilities of stopping or slowing down the process would suffice. It was found, moreover, that the object could no longer be put on show, for the reason of its state of deterioration.
  • For three objects preventive measures were recommended. This applied to the objects by Giezen, Broodthaers and Merz.
  • Five objects required active conservation and restoration. This applied to the objects by Pascali, Van Amen, Cragg, Gilardi and Tinguely.
  • For one object, the 'Achrome' by Manzoni, a follow-up study was required before the decision on the conservation could be reached.
Results and conclusions of the project
'Conservation of Modern Art' The Models - 'Decision-making model', 'Model for data registration' and 'Model for condition registration' - are actual results of the project.
The project has had a significant effect in creating a sense of awareness concerning the problems involved in the conservation of modern and contemporary art.
During the project specialists representing various disciplines have been able to develop a means of communication.
The establishment of an international network of 14 museums has improved international communication and research institutes (i.e. the participants of INCCA).
A survey has been made of all the experts involved in the project.
The transfer of knowledge relevant to training programmes has been given much attention. Conversely, training institutions have contributed significantly to the project.
This kind of collaboration contributes strongly to the insight into the problems and the solutions concerning the conservation of contemporary works of art.
The research on the ten art objects brought to light that synthetic materials form the weakest part in objects containing materials of this kind. In all of the pilot objects these materials proved to be the first ones to deteriorate. Concerning synthetic materials the following conclusions could be drawn:
  • It is often difficult to recognise the exact kind of synthetic material (composition, manufacturing processes). As a result the stability of objects which are partly made up of synthetic materials is often hard to define.
  • It is very hard to predict the 'life expectancy' of synthetic materials, because of a lack of knowledge on the ageing of these materials. - The active conservation of objects containing synthetic material is a not yet widely explored area (for example on the gluing and consolidation of polyurethane foam).
  • None of the participating museums was or is equipped with adequate storage facilities for synthetic objects. The development of a thesaurus of modern materials is urgently needed. In the area of synthetic materials in particular there is much confusion about terminology among curators and conservators.
Based on the results and the conclusions of the project 'Conservation of Modern Art' the Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art has come to the following recommendations:
  1. Documentation of and research on materials and techniques used by artists in relation to their 'meaning', should be a structural part of the conservation of contemporary art. Interviews with artists are a major instrument in this respect.
  2. Art-historical and art-theoretical research regarding the conservation of contemporary art needs a strong impetus, considering the existing backlogs in this field. On the international level museums should be incited to pay more attention to this kind of research and join forces with external partners.
  3. There is an urgent need for the development of an international network to exchange information. Information on materials used by artists should be considered as of major importance.
  4. The accessibility of the registration model has to be improved.
  5. A management strategy for the conservation of modern art has to be developed further. Not only should the method developed in this specific research project be tested as to its suitability for modern art collections, but also guidelines are to be drawn up with regard to the purchase of new works of art.
  6. Structural research by scientists on the composition and ageing of modern materials - in particular synthetic materials -, used in contemporary objects is of crucial importance to the conservation of collections consisting of contemporary art.
  7. Methods and techniques regarding preventive and active conservation of modern materials - synthetic materials and applied electronics or prefab parts in particular - are to be developed and tested.
  8. In order to communicate effectively on the conservation of modern art, there is a need for a thesaurus of modern - especially synthetic - materials.
On May 12th, 1996 a presentation of the project took place in the Kröller- Müller Museum. Otterlo.
A PDF of the proceeding of this presentation is available here.
See links below for related information: