Professor Dr. Wolf-Dieter Dube, born in 1934 in Schwerin, Mecklenburg, Germany, studied art history and classical archaeology before receiving his Ph.D. in 1961. He became curator for Flemish paintings at the Bavarian State Paintings Collections in 1966, and three years later was made head of the State Gallery of Modern Art in Munich. In 1976 he became deputy to the Director General of the Bavarian State Paintings Collection. Internationally recognized as an expert in museum technology and architecture, Professor Dube was appointed Director General of the State Museums of Berlin in 1983, and since German reunification has supervised the merger of the state museums within both parts of the city.
Frank Preusser is Associate Director for Programs at the GCI.
Frank Preusser: As an art historian, long-time curator, and now director of one of the most important museum complexes in the world, how do you see the role of conservation and restoration in today's museums?
Wolf-Dieter Dube: Conservation and restoration is the major challenge for all museums with large collections. Institutions like the State Museums of Berlin are primarily archives, displaying only a small part of their collections to the public. To conserve this wealth of materialslet alone restore itis an immense task. Never in our history, since 1830, was there sufficient capacity for restoration work. Our resources have never been adequate to preserve even the collections open to the public.
Do environmental factors contribute to the difficulty of preserving your collections?
Only a portion of our museums meet modern requirements for climate control. For example, we are now again responsible for the Museumsinsel [a complex of five museums in former East Berlin], which is basically without any climate control technology. The windows of the Bode Museum are so leaky that the building cannot maintain a controlled climate. Any conservator knows what this means for large panel paintings: one cannot repair paint blisters as fast as they appear. I can only admire my colleagues who have fought this struggle for decades, essentially knowing that they could not win.
It is now our task to improve these buildings as quickly as possible to establish a stable environment so that conservation and restoration treatments will endure. We are, for instance, building a new paintings museum, which we hope to occupy in 1996. By then we will have to restore approximately 90 paintings, a number which far exceeds our capabilities. Fortunately there is assistance from colleagues such as those from the J. Paul Getty Trust. But some difficult restorations must still be postponed, and will have to be addressed during the next decades.
There is the impression outside of Germany that because the German Democratic Republic was somewhat isolated from western developments, conservation theory and practice developed differently in both Germanys.
It may be true in some instances, but I believe that fundamentally there are no differences. It seems to me that the method of treatmentas long as it is gentleis less important than the philosophy of the museum, which should be to proceed very carefully. One always tries first to regenerate before one removes something. We do not remove 19th-century restorations on paintings. This philosophy is applied in both the Bode Museum of the Museumsinsel and the Gemaeldegallerie in Dahlem.
In the process of reunifying the museums in Berlin, we did have the problem of museum directors from each collection. The question was who will be director and who will be deputy director. The same was true for the heads of the conservation laboratories. The head of the western laboratory did not necessarily become the head of the unified laboratories. For example, the chief conservator of the Kupferstich Kabinett of the Museumsinsel is now head of the whole laboratory with the full support of all her colleagueswhich suggests that there are no fundamental differences or problems.
You mentioned the Museumsinsel. There were heated discussions in the press and at the recent international art history congress in Berlin concerning the proposed restoration/renovation of the Museumsinsel. How does the need to preserve historic architecture impact on your plans to modernize the museum buildings and to improve their climatic and display conditions?
The problem of the Museumsinsel is that the five buildings of the complex are in each other's way. It began with the old museum, this wonderful Schinkel building. Twenty years later it had become too small, and the new museum was built by Stuehler. Then construction of a National Gallery for contemporary art was required, which was followed by a Renaissance museum, now the Bode Museum. When it opened in 1904, the Islamic and other collections had grown so large that they also had to be crammed into it. So the Pergamon Museum was constructed, though never completed.
The buildings were connected with narrow walkways on the second floor. Before World War ii this was probably adequate for the visitors. But today I must plan for four million visitors per year. To properly guide these visitors through the collections is a very difficult task, since the buildings were not meant to handle so many visitors. Furthermore, the whole Museumsinsel is under historic protection. While there is no question that each of the buildings is worth preserving, it will be impossible to avoid certain interventions.
We are fighting the same problems that led to the construction of the big pyramid at the Louvre. We need something similar. Of course, it is very important that experts in historic preservation be included in the process.
Will you be guided at all by the recently reopened Gemaeldegallerie in Dresden, in which everything was reconstructed as it had been in the 19th century?
I believe that we should not depart from what we have learned during the past 30 years: to emphasize the individual art work. This is my conviction; others may have different views. The new museum is in ruins and urgently needs to be rebuilt. Rooms and room sequences which are still preserved in their main parts will be restored without going all the way to forgery. With other rooms where only the outside walls remain standing I would like to create spaces appropriate to modern exhibition practice. Only if I respond to the aesthetic and didactic needs of today's visitors can I create a living museum. A museum should not become a museum of itself. I consider this a great mistake.
We live in an age of blockbuster traveling exhibits which require substantial conservation work before, during, and after the exhibitions. How do you regard this type of exhibition?
There is no question that big exhibitions are necessary. To fight this would be unrealistic, and would not be in the interest of our educational work. If I wanted to be ironic I would say that fewer curators and more conservators might change the situation. But seriously, we need the opportunity of traveling exhibitions for research as well as for reaching the public. Conservators can gain new knowledges and experiences. The question is how can we reduce the burden.
And how do you do that?
First, we can reduce the size of such exhibitions, limit the number of objects. This also has the advantage that one can display the objects more generously, so that ten people can stand in front of a painting.
Second, museums must have more confidence in each other. If I trust an institution with a loan object then I fully trust it. I don't send a courier with each object. I must distance myself from the bad practice that only the courier can place the object in the display case or hang it on the wall. The staff time wasted this way cannot be described, not to speak of the absurd financial costs. Basically, we all know that the courier can prevent nothing. If a crate falls from a forklift, the courier can only jump aside to avoid being hurt, that's all.
Today every museum person speaks about budget constraints and the need to set priorities. How do you see the priorities for the financing and support of conservation in the next decade relative to other museum activities?
For myself, conservation and restoration have a very high priority, because objects must be presented in good condition. It is essential that resources are available for this purpose. Visitors should have the possibility of a sensuous experience, to be able to enjoy the appearance of an artwork. This is easily disturbed. Just think how antique marble portraits which have not been cleaned for centuries appear in some collections.
In our system, money for acquisitions and conservation comes from the same budget. The Gemaeldegallerie Alter Meister has in this category an annual budget of DM 400,000. In light of the quality of the existing collection, they can hardly make any new purchases with this amount. Therefore, for years these funds have been used exclusively for conservation and restoration workand this will continue up until the opening of the new gallery.
One has to try to find new resources. This should include fund-raising not only for new acquisitions, but also expressly for conservation. It is my belief that the restoration of an artwork is like a new acquisition.