In recent years art conservators have gone from behind-the-scenes museumites to featured attractions. Some museums, such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, have put their conservation lab on view, so that anyone who visits can see how objects are cared for. Others, such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston have created special websites, web pages and exhibition displays detailing how conservation has contributed to our knowledge of specific artworks and to art history in general. I’m a big fan.
Apparently sensing both public interest about conservation and seeing an opportunity for audience engagement, last week the Minneapolis Institute of Arts published a blog post on a Hobbema in its collection, Wooded Landscape with Windmill (c. 1665, above left).
The blog post notes that MIA curators have long suspected that the chap wearing a red jacket in the foreground of the painting is a 19th-century addition to the painting. (He rather jumps out of the painting, even in JPEG form.) Recently infrared photography confirmed that Red Jacket is an interloper. “The inclusion of the hunter unintentionally affects the recession of space, drastically compressing the entire scene,” reports the MIA’s blog.
However, in the next paragraphs the MIA went a step beyond where other museums have gone when it comes to featuring conservation (emphasis added):
“Does the painting benefit from the removal of the sportsman? Should a paintings conservator mask the 19th century addition of the sportsman (this process is completely reversible)? Or is the figure now part of the painting’s history?
Take a look at the ‘before and after’ images above, and enter your vote. We’ll take the results into consideration.”
Was that appropriate? The MIA does not have a conservation department (work on objects in the MIA collection is contracted to a regional conservation group that happens to be housed in the MIA). In other words, there’s no conservation staff at the MIA to say point out that trained, professional curators, conservators and the museums for which they work should make decisions regarding the care of collection objects based solely on their professional judgments, not after considering public opinion.
Today the MIA made a change to the web page: It now reads: “Take a look at the ‘before and after’ images above, and enter your vote. We’re interested in your opinion.”
Fab. It’s great that the museum is sharing the history and conservation science with its audience. We want art museums to share information, to be transparent, to tell great stories. The more ways museums find to do that, the better.