Stories beyond time: The science of preserving history

Art captures a myriad of emotion and history that allow us to understand ourselves better—and this is all possible through art conservation.

“Art is a lie that enables us to realize the truth,” wrote Spanish painter Pablo Picasso in a letter to his friend in 1923. Although it has been almost a century since these words were written, the significance behind the artist’s quote remains very much alive. Despite being an imaginative creative output, art is a vessel of culture and truth—a key to understanding the history and life of the world we live in. The tools and technology available today are what allow the world to unlock such valuable assets, especially in the world of art conservation.

Capsules of time

Maria Maronilla-Reyes, a chemist-conservator at the Roberto M. Lopez Conservation Center, defines conservation as the stabilization of an object’s condition. As such, she works to prevent the deterioration of artworks and historical pieces and restore damaged ones to their original condition. She explains that this practice has evolved throughout the years, not only because of technological advancements, but also the consideration of different views and inputs on treatment methods. This was exemplified as she shares how they preserved the clothing worn by the late Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. when he was assassinated, “The conservator cannot just remove the bloodstains because by doing so, he might erase something of historical significance.”

To construct judgments on conservation methods, Maronilla-Reyes highlights the three basic principles of conservation: minimalism—as it is ideal to work on the painting as little as possible, reversibility—as one should be able to remove whatever they added, and compatible stability—as the materials used should be compatible but not stronger than the original materials. “The ethics in conservation, too, did not change, [and that] is to respect [the] original as much as possible,” she emphasizes.

Some early practices of art conservation include utilizing the beeswax-resin compound as a means to reline paintings—a process that involves gluing a new canvas to the back of an old one. However, this method became antiquated after conservators realized that it was difficult to reverse. Bart Devolder, Chief Conservator at the Princeton Art Museum, adds that modern conservators instead stitch the damaged parts of the canvas back together for a less invasive approach.

Where art meets science

Science and technology play major roles in art conservation, ensuring that the optimal methods and materials remain effective  on artworks. Maronilla-Reyes articulates that the basis of determination always lies in the aforementioned principles of conservation, whether it is an old artwork or a recent one. “A lot of new glues or paints get tested by science to make sure that…100 years from now, they can be undone,” adds Devolder. 

He notes that one of the most vital steps in restoring old work is first understanding how an artwork was made. With X-rays, one can look through the surface of a painting and determine the materials that were used. Moreover, using infrared reflectography, one can observe what lies beneath the painted surface of artworks. Some infrared cameras can see further than 2000 nanometers below the paint surface and capture the different layers throughout the painting. After meticulous observation of the artwork, conservators can determine what materials would be the safest to preserve them with. These machines also help to identify what parts of the piece require restoration.

Maronilla-Reyes divulges that there is a multitude of organic and inorganic materials used to preserve and restore paintings to their original quality. Organic materials are made from living things such as wood, paper, leather, and ivory, while inorganic materials—which are relatively stronger—are made from nonliving things such as metal, glass, stone, and ceramics. For example, vinegar, an organic acid, is sometimes used to remove rust stains. Meanwhile, low-concentrated muriatic acid, an inorganic material, is used to remove stains from unpainted stonework.

Furthermore, numerous cleaning agents, such as de-acidifiers, stabilizing solutions, and surface protective coatings, are also used in this conservation process. Oftentimes, distilled water, alcohol, mineral spirits, and esters are also utilized. “Caution should be taken before applying any of them by testing in an inconspicuous spot for any adverse reactions,” she stresses, mentioning that numerous tests and trials are done on cleaning agents to understand their toxicity levels.

Controlling pH levels are another vital element that conservators must consider to avoid causing damage to artwork. Maronilla-Reyes says, “It is like controlling your body temperature. [If your temperature goes] over 37 degrees, it indicates that you have reached an unstable condition.” For instance, paper and canvas cloths are stable at pH 7. When this level is decreased, the materials of the piece may begin to weaken. She furthers that under humid conditions, paper and canvas cloths may begin to deteriorate because moisture and humidity “act as vehicles for the acidic components aggravating acid attack on artworks.”

Disadvantages of time

Sometimes, an artwork may appear too damaged to recover. As all artworks are made of different materials and exposed to a diverse set of environments, “there is no tailor-cut solution to restoration,” Maronilla-Reyes remarks. Thus, depending on the demands of the situation, restoration has a variety of approaches. She adds that because there are many specialties in art conservation, some damaged artworks may appear too difficult to restore by one conservator yet are still saveable by another. “Like in the field of medicine, there are different specialists to cater to varying diseases—what may be hard for an internist may be easy for a surgeon,” she posits.

Devolder shares similar sentiments, “It’s never too damaged. There is always something that can be done.” He recalls an encounter with a Helen Frankenthaler painting that was exposed to a fire, which was deemed damaged beyond repair by many. Despite being introduced with only five to seven percent of the painting, the piece was still rescued by his team.

He also emphasizes the significance of studying the damages made on a piece. To him, although detriments to priceless artwork may be extremely unfortunate, its broken pieces are still educationally resourceful, “We’re interested in what the fragment is [and] what the fragment in itself represents.” He continues, “We can also learn about, [for instance], ‘what does fire really do to a paint film?’”

Though art conservators may bear the skills to bring life back to an artwork, they must also remain mindful of their responsibility—to conserve. It is vital that they do not overstep their boundaries as the sole purpose of their job is to ascertain any given piece’s conservation. With that, Maronilla-Reyes explains that conservators cannot tamper with the artist’s signatures or the painting’s significant markings.

Progress toward being

Preservation is what ties the difference in time, and discovering more science-focused methods to stabilize the condition of naturally aging objects is what Maronilla-Reyes hopes to see. “Diagnosis should be supported with tests, analyses, and trials while treatment options should be presented with a good prognosis,” she addresses. Similarly, Devolder emphasizes the significance of science to understand the aging process of materials such as paint films and varnishes to lessen the additional damage of aged pieces and documents. “It’s important that we understand what happens [at] the molecular level, which is obviously something we cannot see without the science involved,” he adds. 

Time does not stop and the science behind restoration is constantly evolving. Even after generations worth of research, methods considered as state-of-the-art practices now might someday be considered inapt and unethical. Just like the pieces of art that preservation looks to perpetuate, the field will always be built upon an unending process of trial and error; not toward perfection, but for the relics of the past to carry on their memories for the future.

Anceline Rhys Imson

By Anceline Rhys Imson

Angel Prieto

By Angel Prieto

Leave a Reply