By Laura Cogburn
In Georgia's remote Upper Svaneti region, a team of specialists is working with local communities to document the 14th- to 16th-century fortified villages of Murkmeli, Chazhashi, Chvibiani, and Zhibiani. Situated high in the Caucasus Mountains, these medieval villages are composed of hundreds of tower houses, which were used as both dwellings and defense posts against invaders who plagued the region for centuries. Since being added to UNESCO's prestigious World Heritage List in 1996, these living villages have become tourist destinations. Economic benefits, as well as conservation challenges, have resulted. Consequently, the Georgia National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the municipalities themselves are seizing the opportunity to develop a long-range plan for preservation and site management that will accommodate the growing tourism while protecting these rare places.
This comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach to site conservation and management caught the attention of the Getty Grant Program. Like its sister program—the Getty Conservation Institute—the Grant Program is part of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Both programs share the goal of developing new methods and innovative strategies for conserving the world's artistic and cultural heritage, and they both are committed to conservation efforts that can serve as catalysts to advance conservation worldwide. However, while the two programs have similar objectives, they operate very differently. In its field projects, the GCI collaborates with other organizations, using its own staff, expertise, and state-of-the-art facilities to conduct those projects. The Grant Program, in contrast, funds projects organized by institutions not affiliated with the Getty. It is exclusively a grant-making organization, and it provides no technical advice, only financial assistance.
The Grant Program, as the philanthropic arm of the Getty Trust, provides crucial financial support for projects in conservation, art history, museum practices, and related fields. While conservation grants may be awarded in support of different types of conservation activities—buildings, works of art, archaeological sites, and training programs—a unifying element is the inclusion of educational opportunities and the potential for the work to make significant contributions to the field.
As in the work of the GCI, field projects supported by the Getty Grant Program incorporate research, documentation, and training, and they are intended to serve as models for future efforts. In Georgia, for example, the preservation efforts extend far beyond the physical stabilization of the structures, to include the conservation of significant works of art and even age-old community traditions. The goal is to understand the multiple values of the heritage to be preserved—historical, spiritual, cultural, and economic—in order to develop an effective and realistic long-range conservation plan.
To approach the complex issues of the Georgian site, ICOMOS Georgia has assembled an interdisciplinary team of Georgian professionals and international specialists with expertise in art history, architectural conservation, materials conservation, engineering, archaeology, and heritage tourism. In close collaboration with local officials and based on the research and documentation gathered during the process, the team will create a long-term strategy to preserve the area and to manage tourism. To ensure that the community has the skills and resources to address current as well as future preservation efforts, the project team developed a series of on-site training components, ranging from student involvement in daily fieldwork to interactive seminars with the local community on the challenges of daily maintenance, repair, and preventive measures.
An equally complex project with local and national training elements is under way in Ghana. In Navrongo—an isolated, arid inland community near the border of Burkina Faso—a project preparation grant from the Getty Grant Program is supporting research and documentation at Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows Cathedral. The project is led by the International Centre for Earth Construction - School of Architecture of Grenoble (CRATerre-EAG), an international organization dedicated to the preservation of this particular building type. CRATerre-EAG is working with the cathedral's bishop and the National Monuments and Museums Board of Ghana to assess the structure's condition and to develop a comprehensive conservation plan.
The church—the last remaining cathedral in Ghana made of earthen materials—is still used for worship. Constructed in 1920 following the arrival of French Canadian missionaries, the cathedral is a fascinating example of the relationship between two cultures: Roman Catholic and the Nankani and Kassena peoples. While the cathedral is European in design, local construction techniques were employed. The walls were built with sun-dried earthen bricks and mud mortar. Beginning in 1973, the cathedral was decorated by women in the Navrongo community, who utilized traditional techniques and mixed Nankani-Kassena motifs and symbolism with Catholic ones.
Unfortunately, the method of applying this traditional decoration is dying out, as the younger generation has fewer opportunities to pursue the craft. Since 1973, the technique has changed drastically as a result of the introduction of commercial paints and the disappearance of the craft of making bas-reliefs. In this instance, the most critical conservation issue is the preservation of knowledge and tradition. This project presents a rare opportunity for elder artisans to share their expertise with younger women.
Currently, as part of an overall assessment of the entire structure—supported by the project preparation grant—a plan is under development for the conservation treatment of the cathedral's painted surfaces. There are various causes for the deterioration of the decoration, ranging from bee infestation to chewing gum stuck to the surfaces. To evaluate the damage and develop the most appropriate treatment proposals, testing and assessment of local repair techniques were conducted with the help of the Sirigu artisans who originally created the decoration and the younger Navrongo women who now maintain the church. Traditional plaster and paint mixtures were prepared and applied to sample blocks and selected sections of the wall decoration. The paint mixtures were prepared with materials purchased in local stores or in the countryside. They include cow dung, soft white earth, soro (gluey leaves), locust bean pods, and tree bark.
To sustain these efforts, CRATerre-EAG and the parish are considering the possibility of extending the decoration on surfaces that, according to the original plan of 1973, were left unfinished in the cathedral. The team is also exploring what might be done at local, regional, and national levels to support the transfer of these traditional skills.
Key to the success of this project is the close relationship among the conservation team, decision makers at the parish and diocesan levels, and the National Monuments and Museums Board of Ghana. By providing valuable information to the various stakeholders, the project has promoted a greater recognition of the cathedral's significance and provoked a strong desire to preserve the site. It is particularly critical in projects such as this, where the work will ultimately be completed and the project team disbanded, that all the stakeholders are involved from the outset, since they will ultimately be responsible for the long-term care of a site. Moreover, the involvement of Navrongo government representatives will ensure that techniques, documentation, and lessons learned at the site will be applied to similar structures throughout Ghana and West Africa.
A commitment to sharing conservation knowledge and techniques is also crucial within the museum environment, where conservation practice is often dependent on competing institutional demands for funds, staff, and equipment. In 1997 the Grant Program and the Lampadia Foundation (which works in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile) began exploring opportunities to coordinate their efforts to strengthen conservation practices in Latin America. Visits to museums in the region revealed that in addition to such challenges as outdated equipment and underequipped laboratories, conservators were rarely able to update their skills with midcareer training and had few connections to the broader conservation community.
Discussions between Grant Program and Lampadia staff led to a partnership and grants from both organizations to two Los Angeles - area institutions, the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which have historically emphasized education and outreach in their programs for collections care. Two senior conservation professionals—the Huntington Library's chief preservation officer at the time, Mark Roosa, and Joe Fronek, senior paintings conservator at LACMA—then visited South America to explore possibilities for a training exchange. Working with the Getty and Lampadia, they developed a proposal that fell within the educational goals of all four institutions.
Strengthening the skills of individual conservators who work in institutions, the program serves as an essential step in building a strong infrastructure for collections care. Through visits to and conversations with conservators and collections managers in three target countries—Argentina, Brazil, and Chile—the Huntington/ LACMA team identified many of the problems that pose challenges to collections, such as high humidity and environmental pollution. As a result, a training program was tailored to focus on these issues. Over the past three years, Getty and Lampadia funding has enabled seven interns to travel to either LACMA or the Huntington, each spending 10 months working side by side with conservators in the laboratories.
At the Huntington, the two first-year interns were from Brazil, representing the National Archives and the Assoiação Brasileira de Encadernação e Restauro (ABER) training program. Both interns brought particular skills and approaches to conservation that reflected the types of materials conservators are working with and their knowledge of local circumstances. The program sought to expose these conservators to preventive and remedial techniques that the Huntington applies to its rare book, manuscript, and photograph collections, with the idea that these techniques may be adapted to fit conservation needs in Brazil. Built into the internship program is substantial opportunity for the visiting conservators to travel to conferences and workshops and to engage in critical networking that will provide them with valuable contacts and ongoing resources once they return to South America. The host-intern relationship is proving to be particularly valuable as they share their successes and challenges.
Throughout its history, the Getty Grant Program has provided funding support for a myriad of conservation projects—training programs, conservation scholarships, postgraduate intern programs, survey and treatment grants, conservation libraries, and national and international conservation conferences. All proposals are evaluated on their overall merits and the quality of educational opportunities that are integrated into the project. When presented with a proposal, the Grant Program evaluates the educational components to determine whether the opportunities are appropriate within the context of a particular project and its resources; it further examines whether full advantage is being taken to convey experiences and findings to others facing similar challenges.
The goal is to multiply the impact of a particular project and to extend its educational reach beyond the life of that project. This reach might be regional, as in Ghana, or national, as in Georgia. The reach can also be international, as it is with the conservation of architect Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic Fallingwater, for example, a project that takes a different approach to meeting these criteria.
Designed in 1935 as a vacation home for Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann, Fallingwater is regarded as one of Wright's greatest achievements, with its striking cantilevered terraces, which rise dramatically over the waterfall that inspired the design. Fallingwater, however, suffers from what has been termed "the curse of the innovator"—the lack of durability of Wright's creations. The modern materials and experimental techniques that Wright employed have contributed to the deterioration of the structure. The cantilevered terraces and balconies were inadequate, and the reinforced concrete used in the structure began to fail almost immediately. The river over which the house was built creates severe moisture problems. When experimental techniques and, in particular, modern materials (for which there is insufficient research) are used, finding solutions to such problems can be difficult.
The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which manages the Fallingwater property, received Grant Program funding for planning and implementation of its conservation program. After drafting a conservation plan, the Conservancy, recognizing the complexity of the project and its responsibility as steward of a site of international significance, sought advice from the broader conservation community. Five experts from around the world were invited to a review forum to evaluate the treatment proposals produced as part of the research and documentation phase. Through this rigorous peer review process, the Conservancy produced a balanced and well-researched final document that reflects the input of the international conservation community and that will serve as a guide for the treatment of modern architecture.
Perhaps more than any other building, Fallingwater represents both the design and the technological aspirations of the 20th century. But it is also subject to inevitable deterioration. Realizing that Fallingwater could serve as a laboratory for the study of modern architecture and materials, the Conservancy developed an educational program that spans the length of the three-year project. Training will focus on equipping Fallingwater's maintenance staff with the necessary tools and knowledge to conserve modern architectural materials. This ongoing training will be extended to other historic-house museum maintenance staff and to college interns studying architectural conservation.
Given the ever-increasing competition for limited resources, the Grant Program will continue to identify creative and interdisciplinary efforts that address conservation practice worldwide and the future of the field. Key to this endeavor will be the program's continuing recognition of the many ways in which issues of scholarship, conservation, education, and economics overlap and intersect in the conservation of the world's cultural heritage. The Grant Program's ultimate goal is to support the leaders who are at the forefront of the development of interdisciplinary and sustainable tools to manage and preserve our cultural and living heritage in the complex global society of the 21st century.
Laura Cogburn is a program associate with the Getty Grant Program.
Conservation and the Getty Trust
The conservation of cultural heritage is supported by research, practice, and Wnancial support throughout the J. Paul Getty Trust, most directly through three programs: the Getty Conservation Institute, through scientific research, education and training, model field projects, and the dissemination of information; the J. Paul Getty Museum, which assists other institutions in the conservation of their collections and hosts visiting conservators; and the Getty Grant Program, which provides financial support for conservation activities, as well as for projects in art history, museum practice, and other related fields. Since its inception in 1984, the Grant Program has given more than $89 million to support over 2,200 projects in more than 150 countries. Of that total support, nearly $30 million has been directed toward the conservation of cultural heritage of the highest significance.