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Conservation Today

Today the primary goal of a conservator is to preserve the work of art or artifact by stabilizing it and protecting it from environmental deterioration without significantly altering the physical remains of the object itself. Conservators uncover and record as much information as possible inherent in the object and assure that an object's historic, religious, cultural, aesthetic, and scientific values are preserved and clearly presented for the benefit of future generations. All of this is done following a specific code of ethics outlined by both national and international professional bodies such as the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

Conservation, like other professions, responds to changes of philosophy and the prevailing tastes and concerns of the culture and time in which these changes occur. What was once admired in the work of a restorer-the ability to bring an object to a "perfect" and "renewed" state-is now often considered unacceptable, if the result is a permanent alteration to the character of the object or loss of important historical and scientific information.

From the time of their creation, treasured artworks, religious objects, and utilitarian objects required repair. In an effort to restore some measure of their value, beauty, and function, restoration aimed to replace, remove, or hide the damaging effects of time, accidents, or vandalism and present the sculpture in a condition that was assumed to be identical to its appearance when it was newly made. Unfortunately this effort led to restorers taking great liberties in their interpretation of ancient works, which in turn changed how antiquities were presented to and understood by scholars, collectors, artists, and the public. Aggressive restorers have done irreversible damage to the original fabric and surface of ancient sculpture.

Reworking of the object ranged from minor surface polishing to the removal of large segments of the original to accommodate the attachment of additions, not unusual in the 17th through 19th centuries. Weathered features were sharpened by rechiseling the form or reducing the entire surface (skinning) with abrasive rasps, or chisels. In this process, much of the original hand of the ancient sculptor (the character of that particular sculptor's method of sculpting) was lost, and the artistic preference of the restorer often overwhelmed the original form.

Today the act of restoration is a very limited part of the conservation of ancient sculpture. The aim of modern conservation is to preserve all the values of what has survived and to provide a stable and safe environment for the object to assure its long-term survival for future generations. Original material and surface is of the greatest importance and is preserved at all costs, since it is this material and the surface that holds and reflects all of the various values of the object. The term value is one that includes the object's artistic importance, as well as encompassing its historical, archaeological, cultural, and religious relevance. It is, in a way, ironic that the very restorations that hid, interrupted, and sometimes destroyed some of these values have become aesthetically and historically valuable themselves. Previous restorations are a reflection of the way in which 17th-, 18th-, 19th-, and now 20th-century artists, historians, collectors, and the entire culture of those periods, "saw" antiquity. They are part of the object's history and should not be removed, as was the common practice just a few decades ago, without considerable caution and discussion.