Preserving Cultures: The Getty's Global Conservation Work

The Berthouville Treasure, Roman, silver and gold, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques, Paris.

The Getty has earned a reputation worldwide for its world-class art and antiquities collections housed at its two museum campuses, the Getty Center in Brentwood and the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades. With over 1 million visitors a year, it is one of the most popular museum destinations in the United States, and it is known as one of the richest museums in the world. It has also become embroiled in several controversies regarding the true ownership of a number of the artifacts in its collection, an issue that most major museums regularly face. What is less known about this well endowed cultural institution is that it undertakes a wide range of conservation projects both in Southern California in its conservation labs and around the world at important historic and cultural sites, helping to preserve the artistic heritage of cultures as diverse as Roman, Chinese, Iraqi and Khmer.

Much of the Getty's international conservation work is done by the Getty Conservation Institute (the GCI), which works in both art and architectural conservation. Many of its most notable works have been field projects at important cultural sites like the Mogao Caves and Yungang Grottoes, major Buddhist sites in China. Located in Western China near Dunhuang, an oasis strategically located at a religious crossroads along the Silk Road, the Mogao Caves contain Buddhist art spanning 1,000 years and reflecting diverse styles, beliefs and patronage. Since 1997, the GCI worked with the Dunhuang Academy to stabilize deteriorating wall paintings inside the caves. The findings of the GCI's report on the work completed in 2010 are now being used by the Chinese to conserve similar wall paintings in other related caves. Since the start of the Iraq war in 2004, the Institute has also been involved in the conservation of protection of the country's ancient buildings. Collaborating with the Works Monuments Fund and the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, the GCI has worked to protect some of Iraq's more than 10,000 recorded archeological sites and monuments, including the Ziggurat of Aqar Kuf dating to the 14th century BC, the Parthian city of Hatra, which stood up to Roman invasions in the 2nd century AD, and several important mosques. It has also helped train Iraqi conservators and rebuild the country's professional conservation heritage and management capacity. Closer to home, the GCI has also helped restore highly important prehistoric rock paintings of Sierra de San Francisco, a World Heritage Site in Baja California, Mexico, and David Alfaro Siquieros mural "América Tropical" in downtown Los Angeles.

The Maran Temple in the city of Hatra, Iraq one of the archeological sites worked on by the Getty Conservation Institute. | Photo: Courtesy of Joanne Farchakh-Bajjaly
The Maran Temple in the city of Hatra, Iraq one of the archeological sites worked on by the Getty Conservation Institute. | Photo: Courtesy of Joanne Farchakh-Bajjaly.

The Getty Conservation Institute began its operations in 1985, and in just 30 years, it has made a remarkable contribution to the preservation of world culture. However, it is not the only department within the Getty involved in major international conservation projects. In fact, the Getty Museum's Antiquities Conservation department does equally critical work conserving artifacts, also in collaboration with other organizations worldwide and occasionally with the GCI. However, because the GCI is a better known entity, the work of the Museum's antiquities conservators has occasionally been erroneously attributed to the Getty Conservation Institute. Two recently opened exhibitions at the Getty Villa, however, help to showcase their valuable contributions to international cultural conservation.

Cup with Centaurs, 1-100, Roman, silver and gold, H 4 5/8.

The Getty Villa's exhibition "Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville" (November 19, 2014 - August 17, 2015), curated by the Getty Museum's associate curator of antiquities, Kenneth Lapatin, is a curatorial gem of an exhibition that tells several interesting stories, starting with the discovery of the silver itself. Accidentally unearthed in 1830 by a French farmer as he plowed his field near Berthouville in Normandy, France, the Berthouville silver hoard dates from the 1st to 3rd centuries AD. According to Lapatin, who specializes in ancient luxury objects and spent the last four years researching the function, style and iconography of the Berthouville silver, they rank among the finest ancient Roman silver to have survived. The ninety silver bowls, cups, dishes, wine pitchers and statues, some with elaborate decoration and others plain, were made by different craftsmen over a few hundred years, and at some point they were all presented as offerings to the god Mercury, whose temple was later excavated at the site where the treasure was discovered. A number of pieces, most notably a striking statue of Mercury, made from sheet silver, were made specifically for presentation to the god, while others were likely made initially as private display silver and then later donated. Some of the most elaborate examples, including a spectacular pair of double-handled cups embellished with reliefs of centaurs, cupids and other mythical creatures, bear dedicatory inscriptions revealing that they were presented by a Roman citizen called Quintus Domitius Tutus.

Beaker with imagery related to Isthmia and Corinth (rollout detail), 1-100, Roman, silver and gold, 4 15/16.

The exquisite quality of the silver workmanship and the fascinating iconography of the imagery adorning the silver would be enough to make this exhibition worth seeing, but it is the story of its conservation that makes it a uniquely captivating exhibition. Most of the silver was crafted almost 2,000 years ago and at some point (or points) it was buried in a cist underground and forgotten, resulting in considerable encrustations and deterioration of the joins where separate sections of silver were soldered together. In addition, when the silver was dug up nearly 200 years ago, it is likely that pieces were damaged further. Soon after the treasure was discovered, it was purchased by the Bibliothèque nationale de France, where it was cleaned and repaired, actions that unintentionally caused further damage to the pieces. As dishes were cleaned of their tarnish and encrustations, they were often scrubbed so hard that they now bear scratch marks (which are shown in the exhibition) and when certain vessels were pieced back together they were assembled incorrectly -- some bowls have the wrong foot -- or pieced together with materials shunned by today's conservators, such as solder, pine resin and beeswax.

Mercury, 175-225, Roman, silver and gold, 22 3/16.

Because the Getty is one of the museums that specializes in the conservation of Roman, Greek and Etruscan antiquities, and the Bibliothèque nationale had been collaborating with the Getty on other projects, the French institution approached the Getty about conserving the Berthouville Treasure as well as four other Roman silver platters in its collection. The exhibition is the result of four years of research, cleaning and very thoughtful conservation by Susan Lansing Maish and Eduardo P. Sánchez of the Getty's Museum's Antiquities Conservation department. Working alongside curators and researchers from both institutions, the conservators faced tough decisions -- whether or not to repair cracks in dishes or dismantle and re-solder bowls with the wrong foot, how much to clean encrustations and whether or not to remove some of the 19th century conservation materials.

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The approach they opted for was one of delicacy -- re-soldering could irreversibly damage a vessel, while removing a beeswax structure holding pieces together could leave very little original material to work with. Even surface cleaning had to be very thoughtfully and meticulously done. "Any time a silver vessel is mechanically polished with fine abrasive materials or compounds," explains Sánchez, "valuable silver, itself, is lost. Therefore, we lose archeological material and evidence of past craftsmanship. We can also lose applied gilding leaving the surface permanently changed." Many of the silver objects were highly tarnished or had been given protective coatings by past restorers and conservators to help keep them clean and shiny for display. For these objects, most notably the spectacular figure of the god Mercury, modeled out of thinly hammered silver sheet, the conservators employed a surprising technique -- steam-cleaning. "In order to preserve as much of the original appearance as possible," says Sánchez, "we employed pressured steam to the surfaces to remove the coating, then the underlying tarnish and then cleaned interstices in the metal work that held soil and residual burial material." Residual tarnish particles were removed using cotton swabs doused in solvent. To share their experiences with the public and fellow conservators, both Maish and Sánchez wrote blogs about the process.

Eduardo Sánchez of the Getty's Museum's Antiquities Conservation Department steam-cleaning the silver figure of Mercury
Eduardo Sánchez of the Getty's Museum's Antiquities Conservation Department steam-cleaning the silver figure of Mercury.

The Getty's Museum's Antiquities Conservation department also collaborated with the Antikensammlung in Berlin on a collection of funerary vases from Apulia in Southern Italy, the results of which are presented in a parallel exhibition "Dangerous Perfection: Funerary Vases from Southern Italy" (November 19, 2014 - May 11, 2015). This exhibition is also as much about conservation as it is about the rituals and artistry of the original ceramics. Here the conservation is particularly intriguing because these 4th century-BC vases underwent some major restoration in the 19th century by Raffaele Gargiulo, a renowned restorer and antiquities dealer who was so skilled at restoration work, often repainting missing sections of the designs, that it was impossible to tell the original from his restoration -- the danger in the perfection.

Here, we need to consider the very important difference between restoration and conservation. According to Marie Svoboda, the Getty Villa conservator who worked on the Apulian vases, "Restoration involves returning objects to what is thought to be their original state, often by adding non-original material, replacing missing elements such as handles, completing integral losses, or overpainting." Conservation, on the other hand, is a more methodical process with varied goals. "It involves the examination and documentation of an artifact's condition/state of preservation and the study of the method and materials of construction in an effort to determine ethical and appropriate techniques for stabilizing and preserving an artifact for the future. Conservation treatment occasionally involves restoration." However, Svoboda points out that in the case of the vases, the lines between restoration and conservation become blurry. Over the six years this project took, the conservators both at the Getty and in Berlin were in part restoring these vases, though unlike Gargiulo, whose goal was to fool viewers into thinking the vases were unbroken, they were more honest, applying what conservators call the "the six foot, six inch rule," namely, someone six feet away can understand the vase shape and the existing iconography, but at six inches away, the additions should be easily recognized as modern intervention.

Funerary Vessel with (A) Orestes Seeking Sanctuary at Delphi; Nike Sacrificing a Ram; and a Horse Race and (B) a Dionysian Scene; a Boar Hunt; and a Horse Race; South Italian, from Ceglie del Campo, Apulia, about 350 B.C. Associated with the Iliupersis Painter (South Italian (Apulian), active about 350 B.C.) Terracotta H: 44 1/8 x 22 x 19 1/2 in. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin VL.2008.5

Whether we are viewing these objects from six inches or six feet or seeing images of the conservation work done on buildings and paintings 6,000 miles away, it is hard not to be impressed by the contribution being made in the world of culture by the industrious and meticulous conservators based at the Getty. The care and attention they give to the sites, buildings and artifacts of humanity's distant history, coupled with the fact that organizations from all over the world entrust their cultural heritage to the Getty's conservation departments may signal a philosophical shift here. In the culture of Southern California, and Los Angeles in particular, where the new and contemporary, the young and fresh, have reigned supreme, perhaps we are beginning to truly understand and appreciate the value of ancient, traditional, the old and the seasoned.


For more information about the Getty exhibitions mentioned, visit here and here.


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