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The language of art conservation

The language of art conservation Mireia Xarrié

A good deal of 20th and 21th philosophy has been devoted to the analysis of language. This paper aims to answer why this language has not been studied, and to describe when conservators need and use language.">

Why does this language have not been studied ?

Although, there are some essays with interesting titles as The language of conservation: applying critical linguistic analysis to three conservation papers, where Laura Drysdale reveals how restrictive is the objective language of science in conservation. It is remarkably that there is a lack of academic investigations about the language of art conservation. However, we have been researching about art conservation’s language (contextualization, use and examples) for fifteen years. In fact, we travelled to many European and North American libraries because we were interested in publications written in eight languages, thus, the more languages, the better to understand this topic from an international point of view. Moreover, the interest for terminology was induced by our previous publications, the art conservation glossary series, where we reviewed more than 1107 books and created a database with 14000 terms and definitions.

The study of language is complex; as already noted we experienced it; and probably explains the lack of academic studies. A number of reasons could be put forward: in one hand, it requires knowledge about linguistics, and in the other, art conservation’s publications are not easily accessible. Certainly, the publishing activity of any discipline contains its language. The linguistics, who study a discipline’s terminology, they first locate a core bibliography and then they retrieve, analyse and study its technical vocabulary.

Another prefatory remark is that to locate a core bibliography (corpus) about art conservation is not straightforward. In fact, it is a pitfall because art conservation has a broad-based and extensive thematic scope. Such evidence is remarkably scarce, we detail it again below.

Secondly, a further problem is that art conservation publications are not only written in English; instead are multilingual, then maybe geographically disperse in foreign libraries, as we did in our investigation.

Another reason is that most of these publications are printed on paper; located in libraries; and they are not all digital and easily consultable in internet. With no doubt, this is a pivotal factor to understand why it is difficult to access to information and knowledge in this field.

In sum, as we attested the lack of previous scientific studies about art conservation’s language, several questions were risen. Therefore, it became an essential prerequisite the help of linguistics and science information’s professors, and then as an interdisciplinary research, we garnered most of the conclusions.

The use of language

Having acknowledged that it is not a straightforward task to research about art conservation’s language, now we would like to focus on how conservators use language.

The profession of conservator, with a long historical tradition, was still basically considerated as an hand-craft profession until mid 20th century in Europe, after World War II, when many old and new disciplines enter to the academic world and international training centers were created. Regrettably, the development of the profession is far beyond the scope of this essay. According to two italian historians, Alessandro Conti and Cristina Giannini’s book Lessico del restauro, in the 18th century the Royal Court of Paris established the easel painting restorer’s figure, but in many countries around Europe the difference between a painter and a restorer could not be seen before 19th century. In other words, art conservation has a short tradition in the academic world, compared to other disciplines, like art history or medicine, which both have had centuries to publish books and to develop a technical language. Nonetheless, conservators use language to comunicate, to translate and to document. They use language to comunicate not only among them, but with professionals from other knowledge fields because art conservation is interdisciplinary. As already noted, from the 19th and more evident since the mid 20th century; art conservation became an important research field that attracted great scientific interest; so these professionals required unprecedented interdisciplinary knowledge of a wide spectrum of disciplines such as art history, chemistry and other related fileds. Consequently, conservators understand and use all these professions’ lexicon. Otherwise, communication would not be possible among them. Professionals from art conservation also need language to translate. In this sense is remarkably that our discipline has been developed in international environments, an example of our discipline’s multilinguism is ICCROM with among its main aims was the commitment to provide training to international students and teachers, for this reason, seminars were taught in Italian, French and English.

Finally, it is in the documentation activity where professionals need and use a technical language to write, to describe with precision, for example, a conservation treatment. This statement might be obviuos, but we needed university lectures in Translation and Science Information faculties, because the relationship between documentation and terminology has extensively studied from these two disciplines, but not from the art conservation point of view. Once more, the lack of studies about this topic raised more questions than answers.

In 1989 the Museum Documentation Association (MDA) held in Cambridge (United Kingdom) an international congress named Terminology for museums, the book was published in 1990. The reading of the countless projects about terminological languages belonging to the documentation in international museums and research centers was crucial and a breakthrough in our study because we could compare and understand the documentation tasks and the use of terminology in museums.

We would like to remark two striking points: firstly, conservation shares with the rest of the museum’s departments the fact that they are based in a broad-based and extensive thematic scope. Secondly, the terminology and documentation activity is not the same in the conservation departments and the rest of the museum departments: collections’ curators, science information professionals, scientist etc.

To begin with, this congress exemplified a common aspect and concern, museums’ collections and art conservation share the problem of a broad-based and extensive thematic scope, so the lexicon used to document a treatment is borrowed from all the disciplines that exchange knowledge. Some authors reflected: “Like several other disciplines discussed in this publication, archaeology, anthropology and ethnography are extremely broad-based subjects.” (Stewart, Terminology for Museums, 1990: 168). And “the terminological challenges faced by anthropology museums are similar to those of the museums with broad-based collections.” (Welsh, Terminology for Museums, 1990: 191). Finally, Budd, wrote “it is a common misconception that terminology control in the natural sciences is well developed, and compared to other disciplines, well coordinated. In part this may be due to the perception of biology and geology as ‘hard’ systematic sciences. More probably it stems from the long history and obvious structure of Linnaean taxonomy.” (Terminology for Museums, 1990: 404).

The second key finding related to terminology and documentation is that conservators in their documentation activitiy don’t use controlled and artificial language (thesaurus, etc.), neither the same documentation systems and methods as the rest of the museums departments and professionals.This can be stated with confidence after the reading of Gwyn Miles, from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London; Roy A. Perry, Conservation Department Tate Gallery, London; Lea D. Jones, British Museum, London; and Charles Velson Horie, Manchester Museum; Leslie Carlyle from the Canadian Conservation Institute and Julia A. M. Dearing and Marie Christine Uginet from ICCROM. Additionally, Michael Corfield; Head of Conservation National Museum of Wales; summarized all the articles from his colleagues, in his own words: “ Historically, conservation recording has developed in isolation, and stands as a major body of information isolated from the main curatorial object records; this is unfortunate, because it is during conservation that much of our knowlege about the techniques used in the creation of the objects is gained. Not all this information can be easily confined within a strict structure and terminology control, although as Jones reports, free text recording may actually cloud the issue rather than support it. In practice, it is often found that given a free choice, conservators will use a fairly restricted vocabulary to describe their work. Conservation documentation cannot stand alone; it must interrelate with curatorial documentation systems. Conservators themselves must work with others in the museum, such as scientists, designers, architects and services engineers”. (Terminology for Museums, 1990:466-7)

In sum, it seems undeniable that the lack of previous investigations, accessibility to art conservation’s bibliography, and the development of the profession, attest the difficulty to study art conservation’s language. Moreover, arguing for the importance of language, evident in the humanities since the 20th century, a question arose during our investigation: does language matter to conservators?

The overrriding consideration is that the humanities are founded on the basis of thinking, art conservation on the material. This latter assertion is a conclusion that is open to further debate, but the aim of this paper was also to help to stimulate it. Obviously, art conservation generates thinking (publications, academic books, etc) and needs language to structure it, but the use of language is not similar to art history, philosophy, literature etc. all these disciplines, are based on language, which as mentioned, helps to give an structure to the thinking; for instance, a painting description, a theory, etc. that is why language has become a pivotal point since the 20th century.

Additionally, in recent years there has been much scholarly literature written on the concepts of conservation, restoration, conservator and restorer. Nevertheless, Gaël de Guichen in his article titled Forbes Prize Lecture: a common definition of conservation and restoration: agree or disagree, but we are living in the Tower of Babel (2007) and published in Studies in Conservation, wrote his remarks about these concepts, having aknowledged that in 1970s a professional from the British Museum was called conservator and one from the National Gallery of London it was a restorer, the reason is because at the National Gallery they restored and at the British Museum they conserved. In this article, he was wondering why Butterworth used indiscriminately conservation and restoration in his books’ title: Conservation of leather (2005), Restoration of moving picture films (2000) and Conservation and restoration of glass (2002).

Finally, as the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). Regrettable as it is, Gaël de Guichen ends his article reminding that it was the European Committe for Standarization in 2007 (CEN/TC 346 WG1), who was in charge of writing the definition of conservation, restoration, conservator and restorer because there was not a consensus definition by the profession.

We conclude that language is not as important as it is for other disciplines based on thinking. In other words, language has not been an important topic and a priority for the profession. Though, it is significant that art conservation’s language is a difficult topic to study, as we have intended to describe in this article. Hopefully, all these assertions will presumably be reviewed by other authors.

About the author

Mireia Xarrié belongs to a family with a long tradition (since 1929) in Barcelona’s museums and art conservation.

Concretely, her grandfather Domènec became a museum painting conservator in 1929 at Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC, Barcelona). Furthermore, her father Josep Maria (1943-2013) studied mural painting conservation in 1972 at the International Center for Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM). Some years later in 1987, he received the request to found the Governmental Art Conservation Institute (Generalitat de Catalunya) until his retirement in 2009.

Consequently, she learnt painting conservation from her father, Josep Maria. While she was studying art history at the university, she had some mural painting conservation practices in Switzerland and in Egypt. From 1994 to 2004 she based her activity in the publishing art conservation field and also organising international seminars about art conservation in Barcelona, where she also translated them (Spanish and English). In 2006, she wrote the Glossary of art conservation series and in 2010 the Multilingual Dictionary online TermDoc.

Finally, she has a Bachelor in Art History at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB); a Master degree in Media (ICT, Journalism Faculties at Universitat de Barcelona and UAB) about Digital Age; and a Ph.D about Cultural Heritage (a multidisciplinary research at Universitat Pompeu Fabra and Universitat de Barcelona). Linked In:é/25/a99/b48/


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