By Adrian Heritage

FALL 2010
The Conservation of Decorated Architectural Surfaces
Challenges and Advances in Training
By Adrian Heritage
Conservation image

Conservation in Europe has developed from its early beginnings in fine art to cover a diversity of areas that were previously the province of craftsmen. Similarly, over the past twenty years, conservation training programs have fostered the appreciation and conservation in situ of an array of decorated architectural surfaces that were formerly neglected or otherwise damaged, whether inadvertently or intentionally as a result of shifting values.

Modern professional training programs in Europe still focus principally on mural paintings, mosaics, architectural polychromy, and gilding, but they increasingly encompass a wider variety of architectural surfaces. These range from graffiti to less exotic applications and finishes (e.g., historic tiles, plasters, renders, and screeds). This development has served to make the field ever more excitingly diverse and relevant in a twenty-first-century context.

Approaches are generally derived from conservation methodologies developed for the understanding, technical assessment, and conservation of wall paintings in situ. The integration of theory with practical hands-on training is crucial to provide familiarity with materials and techniques in context. However, escaping the classroom remains a significant logistical challenge, since curricula are loaded with modules on theory that include conservation history and ethics, natural sciences, art history, and professional skills (e.g., photography, technical English). Despite the difficulties, theory must be underpinned by direct experience with materials (how they work and don't work in practice) and by the practicalities of working on-site. The physical intimacy of students with objects is important for the contextualization of site-specificrelated factors, such as building usage, ethical issues, and resource constraints. For the teaching of original materials and techniques and of conservation materials and techniques, theory should be usefully combined with workshop and laboratory work as well. Teaching in this specialty should also include preventive and passive approaches to conservation, augmented with on-site training in documentation methods and environmental assessment (including moisture surveys and environmental monitoring).

Site visits and on-site practical experience are essential course components that provide exposure to a range of architectural decoration and that complement the theoretical teaching. They promote communication among students and the various stakeholders, from professionals and specialists to owners and members of the public. By studying the function, significance, and shifting values of a site in context—as well as its material types and physical history—these projects allow idealized methodologies to be practically implemented and are, as such, invaluable training tools. Moreover, the availability and affordability of improved imaging and portable noninvasive analytical techniques—including video microscopy, multispectral and 3-D imaging, and portable analysis—are highly advantageous for student training in situ. International projects can be important, in part to attract potential conservation students but also because the ethical and cultural difficulties associated with conserving the cultural property of others raise important questions. Exposing students to diverse objects and methodologies in different contexts underpins the important lesson that no single option is right but that a number of paths can lead toward appropriate conservation. Broad experience encourages broad thinking. For example, every year students from the program at the Cologne Institute of Conservation Sciences work for two weeks at the Auschwitz-Birkenau site in Poland. Here they bear witness to the Nazi atrocities, as well as to the cynicism of the regime as expressed in the extant architectural decoration of the death camps. Beyond this, the German students have the opportunity to work together with Polish conservation students and students of other nationalities.

Current trends are such that in recent years, preventive conservation teaching has become a major component of conservation training programs in Europe. This shift toward preventive conservation was, in part, a necessary adjustment reflecting developments in museums policy and wider practice. Nevertheless, programs need to recognize the necessity to train practicing conservators and strike a balance that incorporates preventive conservation approaches along with practical skills training. More generally, the major challenge is to advance and develop academic education in conservation to the highest level, as advocated in Europe by the European Network of Conservation-Restoration Education (ENCoRE). For example, the wellrespected German diploma has largely been replaced by new BA and MA courses in the different German federal states. These courses are subject to accreditation schemes, and they use the European Credit Transference System (ECTS), intended to facilitate the comparability of academic institutions across Europe and, in theory at least, promote international mobility of students between programs. The result is a trend toward condensed courses with a proliferation of examinations. The irony is that the new structures serve to constrict student mobility, and the reduced space in the curriculum restricts the personal development and self-reflection of students.

Future challenges are to provide midcareer training for graduate conservators and the growing numbers of conservation scientists who step into the field with high academic qualifications but without formal conservation training. Their specific conservation training requirements need to be addressed. Funding shortages continue to be a major concern for training programs, and we have entered an era of increased austerity for education in general. Moreover, in view of other social priorities, spending on cultural heritage throughout Europe will very likely suffer. On the bright side, students are as keen and dedicated as ever, and as long as we can keep them close to the practice and attuned to lifelong learning, they can become and remain competent conservators.

Adrian Heritage is professor for the conservation of wall painting and architectural decoration at the Cologne Institute of Conservation Sciences, Cologne University of Applied Sciences, in Germany.