New Strategies in the Conservation of Contemporary Art is a collaborative, interdisciplinary research programme of Maastricht University (UM), the University of Amsterdam (UvA), and the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage (ICN). It is partly funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). The programme will run from September 2009 until September 2013 and will be executed in close collaboration with museums in the Netherlands and abroad.
What kind of problem does the programme address?
Theory and practice of conservation usually start from the question how culturally significant artefacts like works of art can be preserved as close as possible to their historic or authentic state – or, if needed, can be restored to this state by means of restoration interventions. Conservation research is focused on conserving the physical object with the help of scientific and art technological research. This paradigm in conservation is sometimes called the ‘scientific freeze’ model.
When it comes to the conservation of contemporary art, this model poses severe problems. Contemporary art works often cannot or even should not be preserved in a supposedly ‘authentic’ state. Since the 1960s the idea that an artwork is an autonomous, unchanging object has been challenged by art forms and movements such as conceptual art, art activism, happenings, performance art, installations and media art. Artworks made of degradable or fragile materials, installations made for specific sites, performances, works involving technologies that rapidly become obsolete, all imply that an artwork might be changeable in its very nature. For these kinds of works, the ‘scientific freeze’ model does not give adequate guidelines for conservation.
How are we going to address this problem?
What we are going to do is investigate how such works are currently being conserved in museums. Conservators of contemporary art collections are highly aware of the problems involved and there have been several collaborative research projects studying difficult conservation cases and striving to develop tools for an alternative practice. As all these cases are very different, however, it is difficult to come to general conclusions or guidelines. This is where our programme comes in. We will compare different conservation strategies and ask how they affect the biographies of the artworks involved. This will help us to formulate an alternative theory and ethics for the conservation of contemporary art and to develop guidelines for conservation practice. our programme is interdisciplinary, combining theories and methods derived from restoration-conservation, museology, art history, philosophy, cultural anthropology, and science and technology studies.
Set up of the research programme
The programme consists of 5 projects and a synthesis. In order to make a comparison between the case studies a model of writing ‘cultural biographies’ will be followed as developed in the investigation of material culture and research into the ‘anthropology of things’. Three projects will trace the biographies of artworks that are threatened in their continuity by material decay and obsolescence (project 1, 3), or by relocation of a site-specific work from one place to the other (project 2, 3). Two other projects will focus on crucial stages in the work’s biography: i.e. documentation and knowledge transfer for conservation and re-installation (project 4), and the role of technological research for restoration and conservation (project 5). The synthesizing research takes the case studies as a corpus of practices for the reformulation of a conservation theory and ethics (project 6). To build a bridge between these practices and theory it will use the approach of ‘moral casuistry’ as developed for instance in medical and bio-ethical research.
1. Biographies: Materials and media, PhD project by Hanna Hölling (UvA), supervisor: prof. dr. Deborah Cherry (UvA)
2. Biographies: The impact of conservation on site-specific artworks, PhD project by Tatja Scholte (ICN), supervisor: prof. dr. D. Cherry (UvA)
3. Biographies: Between material and concept, PhD project by Sanneke Stigter (UvA), supervisor: prof. dr. Deborah Cherry (UvA)
4. Stages: On knowledge transfer and documentation, post doc research project by Vivian van Saaze (UM), supervisor: prof. dr. Renée van de Vall (UM)
5. Stages: Conservation and technical mediation, PhD project by IJsbrand Hummelen (ICN), supervisor: prof. dr. Deborah Cherry (UvA)
6. Synthesis: Towards a theory and ethics for the conservation of contemporary art by prof. dr. Renée van de Vall (UM)
Projects 1, 4 and 6 of New Strategies in Conservation of Contemporary Art are financed by the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), projects 2 and 5 by ICN, and project 3 by UvA.
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