23. The Conservation Ethics of and Strategies for Preserving and Exhibiting
an Operational Car
: The Motion and Standstill of Joost Conijn’s Hout Auto (Wood Car)

  • Arthur van Mourik


This paper describes the decision-making process used in the conservation of Hout Auto (Wood Car) by Joost Conijn (b. 1971). One of the crucial questions behind conservation strategies was whether to interpret the vehicle as a kinetic artwork or as a motionless relic. Possible approaches toward the work’s preservation were discussed with the artist and with a panel of professionals from various disciplines. These discussions, which resulted in the decision to preserve the vehicle as a static sculpture, brought new insights to different analytical approaches.

Figure 23.1. Joost Conijn’s Hout Auto (Wood Car) in the garden of the Centraal Museum. Centraal Museum Utrecht. Photo: Ernst Moritz.

The Artwork

In 2001 artist Joost Conijn (b. 1971) created Hout Auto (Wood Car) (fig. 23.1) from the base of a Citroën DS, building the chassis from plywood and installing a wood-burning apparatus that powered the engine instead of gas. In 2002 the artist drove Hout Auto through fifteen countries in Europe, collecting wood along the way and documenting his journey on video. The artwork comprises the car and the video, which is on a DVD. (The master version is preserved on mini DVCAM.)

Collection Management, Preservation, and Presentation

The Centraal Museum Utrecht, Netherlands, purchased Hout Auto in 2003. Before the car became part of the museum collection, the wood-burning apparatus was disconnected and gasoline was used for fuel instead. The artist was involved with this modification. The presentation of the artwork requires complex instructions, conditions, and safety measures. Hout Auto is equipped with a hydraulic suspension system. To move the vehicle easily, and for presentation purposes, the engine must be turned on so that the base of the car is lifted. Storage maintenance requires recharging the battery and driving the car to prevent failure and degradation. During installation, exhaust fumes are vented using flexible hoses.

Research and Methodology

In 2015 the Centraal Museum began research to gain insight into the vehicle’s maintenance as a moving car or as an immobile artwork. This topic, discussed during an interview with the artist, resulted in the following conclusions:1

  • moving the car or using the engine is not essential for the artwork, from the artist’s point of view

  • the car battery can be removed

  • by maintaining oil in the engine, parts and devices can be preserved more effectively for a longer period

  • the engine should not be removed

  • a permanent raised driving position of the base can be realized

Several strategies and possible solutions were carefully considered during two multidisciplinary meetings organized by the Stichting Behoud Moderne Kunst (SBMK; Foundation for the Conservation of Contemporary Art).


The following decisions were made after examining conservation strategies and maintenance issues, the outcome of the artist interview, and the multidisciplinary sessions. Parts and materials will be restored; the engine will be disconnected but the possibility of future use maintained; the oil supply will be maintained; the vehicle will be technically modified for a permanent raised car base (driving position) for presentation purpose; and the car will be moved in the future without using the engine.

Reflecting on the history of presenting, installing, and conserving the artwork, it seems that the sensory experience of the car—its sounds and smells—influenced the idea that it was necessary to keep the engine running. This interpretation resulted in ongoing and intensive caretaking of the vehicle. Because such care involved complex museum practices, it was decided to reevaluate conservation ethics, and topics discussed during the research project resulted in new understandings about conservation theories and the artwork’s authenticity. These new interpretations made clear that Hout Auto can be understood as a sculpture. The outcomes and new understandings will be used as primary reference points and as a directory in conserving the artwork. The Centraal Museum thanks all participants for their insights and cooperation.


  1. Joost Conijn, interview by Marije Verduijn, head of collection management, Centraal Museum Utrecht, October 29, 2015.