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Art Preservation: Fighting for a Beautiful Eternity
Modern museums can exhibit pieces hundreds—even thousands—of years old. Read on to learn how the professionals restore and maintain an ancient artwork.
Art preservation is a battle against time, and its soldiers use two main modes of attack. The art conservator aims to protect a piece against future decay, and the art restorer undoes damage already inflicted. Whichever approach the preserver takes, the job requires a firm grounding in art history, a comprehensive understanding of the artist’s materials, and a knowledge of chemical reactions between pigments, water, air, and whatever else might make up a work of art and its environment.
Restoration is the more straightforward of the two approaches. Using the same tools as the original creator, an art restorer meticulously returns a work to its former glory. It takes equal parts patience and artistic talent to echo the artist’s style without damaging the work, and most restorers specialize in a particular medium such as oil painting, tapestry, or early 20th-century slapstick. Art restorers might work at a museum or a gallery, or they might be freelancers who work for private collectors.
By contrast, conservators are nearly always employed by a major institution. Tasked with the ongoing responsibility of maintaining a work’s integrity, an art conservator’s job is at once more involved and less hands-on. Although restoration is one element of the job, simple maintenance is perhaps the larger element. That means ensuring the piece is protected from excessive heat, moisture, and kisses from ardent fans. Scientific know-how is also crucial. When the conservators at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art received a brittle and badly damaged paper-on-wood-panel masterpiece by 15th century Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes, they had to carefully increase the moisture content in a special humidity chamber over a period of months. Today, the texture that catches viewers’ attention in Portrait of a Man is not cracked and blistered paper, but the astonishingly lifelike skin of van der Goes’s subject.