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Wednesday, May 31 • 4:30pm - 4:55pm
(Beyond Treatment) That Poor Cousin of Treatment: Documentation and Possibilities for Simple Innovation

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Treatment of artworks and artifacts forms the core of a conservator’s responsibilities, but accompanying every modern-day treatment is some form of documentation. Documentation informs future decisions affecting the artwork in aspects such as its significance and meaning, insurance and provenance, and of course, exhibition and treatment. Moreover, as some recent cases involving contemporary art have shown, documentation can itself constitute treatment. Therefore, as one of the key tenets of modern conservation ethics, the practice of documenting artworks and their treatment shares the importance, if not the limelight, of benchwork. This paper looks at common methods of documentation with a critical and practical eye, using a treatment case study to assess their efficacy in transmitting information accurately across time, institutions, and people. The treatment, recently conducted at the Art Institute of Chicago for its newly opened medieval and Renaissance galleries (March 2017), is the comprehensive removal of overpaint from a quattrocento polychrome relief--begun, interrupted, and ultimately completed three decades later by a different conservator (the author). The documentation of treatment, also spanning three decades, provides fertile ground for harvesting tips and fodder for thought. The heart of the paper is divided in three sections. First, specific features of the old documentation that proved helpful to the recent phase of treatment will be identified. On the other hand, its unintended consequences, ways in which it primed the author’s treatment decisions and led to misunderstanding, will also be discussed. Second, the paper describes ways in which the author sought to document difficult treatment decisions as well as major changes in the artwork during treatment. Simple solutions to common problems afflicting conservators of all specializations are offered. These include creating a “contact sheet” for quick reference to an overwhelming number of digital photographs, maximizing comparative content on visuals documenting change, and adding a few atypical but helpful sections to a written report. Finally, the paper explores the qualitative difference between formal documentation--usually in the form of reports written upon completion of treatment and finessed diagrams--and informal documentation such as hand-written notes, lab notebooks, and sketches. The conclusion is that informal modes and methods are vital to an accurate portrayal of the complexity and subjectivity of our conservation treatments.

avatar for Cybele Tom

Cybele Tom

Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Objects Conservation, Art Institute of Chicago
Cybele Tom is Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Department of Conservation and Science at The Art Institute of Chicago. With a focus on painted objects, she pursues broad interests in conservation theory and ethics. She graduated from New York University, Institute of Fine Arts with... Read More →

Wednesday May 31, 2017 4:30pm - 4:55pm CDT
Regency A-B Ballroom Level, West Tower