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Wednesday, May 31 • 2:30pm - 2:55pm
(Beyond Treatment) Active conservation treatments and virtual retouching: what do people actually see?

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The aging and discoloration of objects eventually lead to changes in their appearance and a loss in materiality and value. Active conservation treatments are meant to bring them back to some acceptable condition. However, at some point, an object is considered a “total loss” because it can no longer be treated according to accepted conservation ethics. Virtual retouching techniques have been shown to be a promising method for the non-invasive treatment of objects, allowing total-loss objects to be exhibited again, or at least to help conservators visualize treatments before making treatment decisions. With the use of corrective color lighting, at least some semblance of the original color or color balance in an object can be brought back without physically altering the object surface. Still, even with non-invasive virtual retouching, critical questions are being raised about what the acceptability of a virtually retouched appearance is. For example, various articles about the virtual treatment of five Rothko paintings at Harvard University show the diversity of opinions, ranging from the initial enthusiastic “Wow!” effect, to discussions about site-specific works, or the disturbing reflection of corrective light from a painting which produces its own light (New Yorker 2015). The Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) is examining these issues of acceptability and perception within the framework of research on the local virtual retouching of objects, that is, where only part of the object has changed. Case studies, perception tests, and eye tracking experiments are being used to determine what people actually see in a work of art before and after treatment. In an initial set of tests, subjects with widely different backgrounds were asked to look at two works in an exhibition setting, a virtually treated portrait by Van Gogh, “The Old Arlésienne”, and an untreated mixed-media work by the contemporary Dutch artist, Ger van Elk, “Adieu”, considered to be total loss. Further, subjects were asked to look at several solutions for the active or virtual retouching of a monochrome painting by the Dutch artist, Jan Roeland. For the Van Gogh and Roeland works, they were asked to evaluate the treatments. For the Van Elk work, they were simply asked to describe what they saw. In all three cases, no introductory information was provided. The results show that while descriptions and opinions differ widely as expected, explanations for the differences cannot be simply categorized into technical exhibition conditions or personal background. In fact, in the case of the Van Gogh painting, a small but significant number of subjects including both professionals and non-professionals did not even see the changes due to the virtual treatment which they were meant to see. Such results clearly have implications for the role of virtual retouching methods in conservation, but also for traditional forms of active conservation. Further work is being carried out to determine whether virtual retouching is an acceptable method for exhibiting locally aged works of art, or more an important tool to help conservators visualize and make treatment decisions.

avatar for William Wei

William Wei

Senior Conservation Scientist, Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed
Dr. Wei (1955) is a senior conservation scientist in the Research Department of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE - Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed). He has a B.S.E. in mechanical engineering from Princeton University (1977) and a Ph.D. in materials science... Read More →

Wednesday May 31, 2017 2:30pm - 2:55pm CDT
Regency A-B Ballroom Level, West Tower