Sunday, November 13, 2011

Finding the Conservator in Conservation

I think the conservator is the least studied, the least written about, and the least understood part of the conservation world.

Before this year’s Guild of BoodWorkers Standards a gathering was held to discuss the issues surrounding the Tomorrow’s Past movement and the Bonefolder’s most recent iteration of Bind-O-Rama, Artisitically Reversible – Where Conservation and Art Meet.  The aim of the Bind-O-Rama and the gathering was “to explore the movement's tenets of providing new, conservationally sound clothes to old books.” (For more context please see the article in The Bonefolder, Vol 7, by Charles Gledhill, the Tomorrow's Past web pages, and this post at the Riverlark blog entitled Old wine in new bottles.)

I think another title for the event could be Finding the Conservator in Conservation.

On the face of it, however, the conversation was about the tenets of the Tomorrow’s Past movement to provide “new, conservationally sound clothes to old books.”

“Why,” event organizer Karen Hanmer asks “in 2011 make something look like something that was done in 1500?”

The Tomorrow’s Past movement is about doing good conservation using an aesthetic that may not be fully sympathetic to the period of the piece. This naturally leads to the question, where and when is it acceptable to insert the conservator’s aesthetic into our conservation work? There is a sense that the conservator is to be invisible in their work. Their conservation treatment may be visible in their work, but they should not be. This may be an illusory goal but we are uncertain as to how overt the conservator should be in putting their own stamp on their work. How does incorporating the conservator’s aesthetic fit into the AIC Code of Ethics? 

Suzy Morgan’s rebinding of a very tattered volume incorporating a spine entirely of Mylar was discussed as an example of this approach to conservation.  See links for a full gallery of pictures, and a blogdescription of the project.

There was an interesting side-bar conversation about reversibility and the increasing acknowledgment that this is an impossible goal. More satisfying alternate treatment goals of “retreatable” and “suitable” were offered.

At one point a person (sorry I don’t know who it was, but it was a woman) states what I think was the subtext, and the real heart of the conversation “We are inserting ourselves into the lives of these books, no matter how sympathetic we pretend it is.”

Conservators become intimately, physically involved with the items they work on and intentionally or not, become part of that item’s being. There is however a discomfort, as this conversation reveals, with how overt our relationship with these objects can be. Should others be able to look at a book that was conserved and recognize who did the work? I’m going to guess that some would say no – the conservator should vanish into the “woodwork” or into the grain of the paper. Is it okay for a conservator to do something in a conservation job which is not “necessary” to the conservation of the piece and reveals something of the conservator?

While I think the idea of the invisible conservator is impossible and wrong and should not be a goal, I also do not advocate for a conservator’s self-expression free-for-all. This issue of how much of our selves do we put in our work must always be held in thoughtful and professional tension.

The author, the binder, the seller, the conservator, and the reader are all part of the community that creates and interprets our written cultural heritage. Understanding who these various members are only helps deepen our understanding of this heritage.

I am thankful for those who participated in the discussion, and took the efforts to record and share itonline. I also hope we continue to discuss not only the work of conservation, but also the life of the conservator.


  1. Kevin,
    Thank you for your thoughtful post on this subject. The discussion at the Guild of Book Workers was indeed very interesting and challengingly thought provoking. On the question of the invisible conservator, and creating new clothes for old books, I think there will always be tension. In looking at much of the work we do as (library) conservators I would even venture to guess that many of our neutral cloth covered recases or limp paper bindings, or even Gary Frost's sewn board binding, we are already inserting ourselves and our aesthetic into the process.

    In terms of AIC, I refer to Barbara Appelbaum's talk at AIC, Conservation in the 21th Century; Will a 20th Century Code of Ethics Suffice? In (re)reading the guidelines, I think many will find far more flexibility than they think, none of which should or will lead to a free-for-all.

    I look forward to further discussion.

    Peter Verheyen

  2. Peter,
    Thanks for you comments. I agree that, knowingly or not, conservators already insert their own aesthetic into their work. Considering the popularity of neutral cloth recases - it is a very cautious, conservative aesthetic. This is probably fine, but it kinda amuses me that the book conservator's aesthetic is exemplified by neutral, undecorated cloth.