Technical art history is a term that is often used but not necessarily universally embraced. Is it a separate area of study or simply another aspect of art-historical research? And how can the interdisciplinary collaboration that the work requires be encouraged and strengthened? Conservation put these and other related questions to three prominent experts with extensive experience in technical studies.
Heather Lechtman is professor of Archaeology and Ancient Technology in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is also director of the Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology, a consortium of eight Boston-area universities and museums. Ms. Lechtman is the recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation award (1984-89).
Richard Stone is senior museum conservator in the Department of Objects Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where he has been on staff for nearly 30 years. His main interests lie in the technology of artworks in nonferrous metals, especially Renaissance bronze sculptures.
Katharina Walch-von Miller is a trained harpsichord maker and has a degree in furniture conservation. Since 1988 she has been at the Bayerisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege (Bavarian State Department of Historical Monuments), where she is responsible for painted and wooden church interiors, as well as secular interiors. Her particular interest is research on historical materials and techniques, especially lacquers and varnishes.
They spoke with Brian Considine, conservator of decorative arts and sculpture at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Jeffrey Levin, editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.
Jeffrey Levin: The first and most obvious question is what the term technical art history means to each of you.
Heather Lechtman: I think that for a variety of reasons it would be a mistake to use the term technical art history. When one describes an activity by calling it technical art history, one is really defining a new field. Art history is an intellectual pursuit that has had a long time to develop and that has a whole menu of methods brought to the intellectual enterprise. In art history, there are people who do philological studies, iconographic studies, or stylistic studies. And now there are people who do technical studies of one kind or another within this discipline. Those are all methodological approaches to a particular intellectual tradition. Of course, as you bring newer methods to the tradition, the tradition changes. But saying "technical art history" is a practice akin to the use of the word archaeometry, which, in my view, was a term mistakenly used early on to describe a technical investigation of archaeological materials. Archaeometry has almost developed as a discipline unto itself and has not been successful in illuminating what archaeologists are trying to understand. The use of terms like archaeometry and technical art history tends to define some new kind of field, and the payoff is negative. I don't think that it's necessary to say more than "this group of people in this lab performs scientific analyses or technical studies on objects of art with the intent of illuminating historical issues."
Richard Stone: I couldn't agree more strongly. I consider the whole enterprise simply as art history continued by other means. Art history implies that the artifact that you are looking at is worth individual contemplation. And, second, that the questions asked are historical. My own life's work has been solving rather basic art-historical problems. Who cast this bronze and why do we have more than one version of it? Why do they look similaror why don't they look similar? These are straightforward art-historical questions that are direct extensions of the stylistic techniques that most art historians were trained on.
However, there is the temptation to become wedded to a proceduresay neutron activation, Raman spectrography, stable isotope ratios, or even traditional stylistic analysis. You know a technique and you exploit it. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. However, sometimes the material that comes out is not really of direct interest for answering significant historical questions. It is more fruitful to first pose a question and then to find a way of answering it. This frequently demands collaboration, and collaboration means surmounting interdisciplinary barriersgetting art historians, scientists, and conservators to do things that they have not been in the habit of doing with one another. For instance, art historians basically do not collaborate. This isn't unique to art historians. It's true of all the humanities. People are used to doing things a certain way, and collaboration is regarded by many in the humanities as equivalent to playing tennis with the net down, somehow an unsporting activity.
I agree with Heather. We don't want to create another field. We want to enlarge and enrich an existing field. We want to be able to bring new types of evidence to bear on old questions, and also discover new questions that we never thought of asking.
Katharina Walch-von Miller: For me, this term, technical art history, is confusing, but maybe it's a question of language. In German, we more often use the term historical art technology, which perhaps means the same. For me what's most important is that there is teamwork among at least three different disciplinesthe conservator, the conservation scientist, and the art historianto study an object of interest. Everyone has a part. For the art historian, it could be looking at the artist's instructions or bills or contracts. For the conservation scientist, it could be analyzing historical and modern materials to compare the results, information, or written historical sources. And for conservators, it is the very important study of sources.
In my work, I usually start with observations and initial research, and during this process certain questions arise in connection with materials and techniques. To answer these questions, it's very important to look for the allusions in written or printed sources. The aim has to be a correct comparison between the object and theoretic technical studies. The quality of that step depends on the quality of researchwhich itself depends on the good teamwork of the specialists involved. I agree that this is seldom the case and that we have to do more.
Lechtman: Using the term technical art history would provoke people to define a new field rather than stimulate them to mend the breach between conservators and conservation scientists, on the one hand, and curators or art historians, on the other. Art history is a historical discipline; history is the architecture on which it is built. In archaeology, that architecture is anthropology. When archaeologists look at artifacts, regardless of the methods that they use, they are really trying to answer questions about people. That's also true about art historians. They're using an object that somebody considers a work of art, not so much to say something about the object but ultimately about how it got to be what it isthe way it was designed and built and used and people's attitudes toward it. These matters have to do with the social and cultural context in which these things functioned. What we are looking for are new approaches to answer large questions about human beings who made these items for specific reasons and used them for specific purposes.
What we've all been striving for is to find ways in which the common expectation that we havewhether we're conservators or whether we're art historianscan be realized by working together. The only recent program that I know of that has tried to bring these groups together is the National Gallery program called the Kress Paired Fellowships for Research in Conservation and the History of Art and Archaeology. The National Gallery internationally solicits applications for conservators and art historians to come forward with research projects that can only be accomplished if they work together.
Brian Considine: Heather, I hear your message of the need for increased interdisciplinary collaboration. My sense is that the conservators, conservation scientists, and art historians within the museum communitywhich is the community within which I workare working this out, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes more effectively, but I do think that we are making a lot of progress. I am encouraged by the outreach that I see to the university research community. For example, we have a project with the Department of Neurobiology at USC [University of Southern California] working on antibodies in the identification of proteinaceous materials. And there's the scholar program here at the GCI, which encourages people to make the best possible use of Getty-wide resources, the original documents in the library, the museum's collection, that kind of thing. I do think we're moving in the right direction.
Walch-von Miller: I had a very good experience with teamwork during my six years on a project of research and conservation of lacquered and varnished surfaces. Together with my colleagues, conservation scientists Ursula Baumer and Johann Koller from the Doerner Institute in Munich, we researched the technique and the use of materials on a famous lacquer cabinet, the so-called Cabinet of Miniatures from the Munich Residenz. Hermann Neumann, a trained architect, headed the project and was responsible for the historical aspects. The cabinet was destroyed in World War II, and the aim was to reconstruct the original red gloss lacquer, based upon two doors that survived the war. After our conservation research and the very complicated analysis conducted by the conservation scientists, we tested for the reconstruction. At the beginning, we were not very successful. We had problems with the hardness or the softness of the different lacquer mixtures, of the various layers, problems with the color of pigment and the dyestuffs, with the structure of the paint, and so on. We found the solution only through intensive study of the contemporary published literature, and there we discovered technical details and materials that we had not observed before.
Conservation scientists can find only what they are looking for, so if you're not looking for camphor or other materials, you will never find them. Although we worked side by side with the conservation scientists of the Doerner Institute, intensive dialogue was necessary. We got to know a lot of materials that we didn't know previously. If you want to work together and have success, it's only possible with continuous dialogue and collaboration.
Levin: I see two themes emerging here. One is the need for greater interdisciplinary collaboration, which you all seem to be saying can be impeded by thinking of "technical art history" as a separate discipline. The other goes to the issue of addressing questions, as opposed to simply using techniques. With respect to collaboration, do you agree with what Brian is saying in terms of there being increased collaboration among conservation scientists and conservators and art historians and curators over the last 10 to 15 yearsor is this something that's still a struggle?
Stone: There has definitely been progress. However, that progress is essentially on a personal, one-to-one, basis. One can find scientists, conservators, curators, and art historians who work together and find one another's work mutually supportive. Nevertheless, the habit of sustained and regular collaboration has not reached the critical mass necessary for it to be self-sustaining. It has certainly not yet penetrated into the great bulk of ''usual and customary" research.
Walch-von Miller: I have seen some development in collaboration in Germany and in Europe over the last 10 or 20 years, and this work has influenced all professional disciplines in art. But it is happening very slowly. Professional work is not influenced enough by this approach to research. I am often asked the reason for this. Aren't colleagues curious enough or is it a question of art historians working with other disciplines? And one reason could be that perhaps it is too difficult to obtain all the possible information and technological know-how.
It would be helpful to organize special Web sites that are so well known that scientists in that field are interested in publishing results there. But there has to be professional quality control. In my opinion, that's a big problem. I read a lot of research that I can't believe has been published. In any case, there's a great opportunity, in my opinion, to develop the dialogue between conservator and art historian, as well as conservation scientist, but we have a lot to learn about teamwork. Every discipline is of equal importance, regardless of its age.
Levin:Katharina, you just offered one suggestion for supporting greater collaboration. What other things can and should be done to encourage interdisciplinary work?
Lechtman: I don't think we're going to make very big strides in meaningful collaborations until such time as the academic discipline of art historythat is, the way it is taughtundergoes dramatic change. In the 1930s and 1940s, places like Harvard and other great institutions made an effort to teach students about the materials and the techniques of artists. Over the years, I've seen that trend end. Art history students these days almost don't even look at objects. Everything is done with slides or on a computer screen. There is nowhere in the curriculum, either at the undergraduate or graduate level, that makes them aware of the fact that materials matter, that technique matters, that social context matters. It has all simply disappeared.
Stone: Well, it hasn't entirely disappeared. I give a course!
Lechtman: Dick and I were both in the same class at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center, and the good thing about that program has been its insistence that the conservation students also get a master's degree in the history of art. Students in that program have a pretty good idea of what art history is all about, what the intellectual issues are all about, what the traditions are all about, so that when they do their work, they are able to handle the issues and the data both from the scientific side and the traditional historical side. But that has not happened in art history academic education. Art historians are trained, more or less, with no input from the scientific side, which is going to be required for them to understand not only that they need to collaborate but that these issues matter. In the 1970s, when we established our Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnologywhich is an eight-university consortiumwe had two or three graduate students every year from Harvard who were getting their doctorates in art history and who came to learn about materials. I haven't seen a student from the art history department at Harvard in 20 years or more. They come from archaeology.
Stone: Art history has changed since Heather and I were graduate students. The last 25 years have been a period in which the notion of art-historical ''theory" has become of almost obsessive concern. People now study art not so much from the point of view of the explication and illumination of a given work of art, but as part of a thematic data bank for what are actually other disciplinesfrequently political history and sociology, but especially the various ''new" disciplines of the later 20th century, with their frequently cumbersome ideological freight. Many people now studying art historyespecially those outside of museumsare dealing with issues where an individual work of art as a primary historical document has no very great significance and where the physical examination of individual artworks seems like an arcane irrelevance.
Levin: Katharina, do you sense the same change in the way art history is taught and thought about in Europe as Dick and Heather are describing here in the United States?
Walch-von Miller: I would say the problem is that the training of art history students often does not look enough to other fields. It is the opposite for conservation students. In Germany, conservators have to study art-historical fields and scientific fields, so they might not be experts in these disciplines but they are open to their problems. This is very important. I'm also convinced that it's very important to teach our students to read historical sources or technical history and to tell them what that offers to us. They have to learn step-by-step to read this kind of literature. That means a handwritten manuscript can be very difficult, but most difficult, in my point of view, is a correct understanding and interpretationhere you can make a lot of mistakes. So I would say it's necessary for every discipline to have a better education in the other fields. In Germany, in the last few years, many students of conservation have made a good start.
Considine: I'd like to follow up on this point about the change in art historians. My experience within the museum is different because I see them keenly interested in the objects, and particularly interested in working with us on the technical study of those objects. Twenty years ago, when we started taking X-radiographs and bronzes with Peter Fusco, who was then curator of sculpture at the Getty, it was tremendously exciting. He was seeing things that he was not used to seeing, and he realized the potential that technical study had for bringing completely new information to the study of bronze sculpture.
That has only continued. We are dating ceramics with thermal luminescence. We are dating furniture with dendrochronology, and also comparing analysis of the materials in our collection with published period treatises from the library. That's the kind of information that we can contribute to the dialogue and that has captured the attention of the art historians with whom we work. In a sense we're preaching to the choir because they're in museums, they're object-oriented people. I do acknowledge the difference in people who come to the discipline from a theoretical approach. But I find the dialogue with the art historians now to be very exciting.
Stone: Katharina said something that I strongly agree with: that it is a good thing to return to the primary documents. These are the old recipe and trade books. There are a surprising number of them, but while bibliographies are growing, not enough people seem to be reading the texts. Reading this material is, no doubt, difficult. One frequently does not know whether the difficulties are actually in the text or the product of one's own ignorance.
The major problem is that while the history of science is flourishing, the history of technologyat least outside of archaeological disciplinesis not. There is amazingly little new concrete information on even the most pervasive technical processes and devices, especially for the early Modern period. It is almost as if scholars were ashamed to be caught writing about mere nuts and bolts. It should, after all, be the job of a scholar of technology to explain what actually happened, as well as its social significance. Technology existed long before there was anything called science. It is an independent and universal human activity, which hasn't received nearly enough attention in recent yearshence the difficulties with the primary texts. We simply do not have sufficient antiquarian knowledge to read them properly.
Walch-von Miller: An example of how difficult this can be is our research on Venetian turpentine. This term changed during the centuries, and since the second half of the 19th century, it often meant a mixture of larch turpentine and pine resin. That's why you can read in the modern literature on painting techniques that Venetian turpentine has a strong tendency for yellowing and drying badly and so on and that it should not be used for lacquers. Reading historical recipes, I was surprised that Venetian turpentine was recommended so often. With the help of a critical study of printed sources, I learned that Venetian turpentine in the 17th century was also called Cyprus or Chios turpentine, and it was obtained from the so-called turpentine treePistacia terebinthus. Because of trade problems, it was replaced more and more with larch turpentine. With the help of historical sources, we also learned that this Venetian turpentine mostly was not used as a balsam but as a resin that was very helpful for drying. The gas chromatographymass spectrometry [GC-MS] analysis, which was undertaken in parallel, confirmed the knowledge that we learned from the sources. This was the impressive result of very productive teamwork with conservation scientists Ursula Baumer and Johann Koller, as well as with Dietger Grosser, a biologist, doing research on historical literature.
Stone: I have a pressing issue right now that involves the same problem that Katharina is talking about. I'm working on a long-term project on the patination of Renaissance bronzes, and a problem I have is that at present the Metropolitan Museum does not have an organic chemistalthough this is scheduled to be remedied. While most of the primary analytical research on Renaissance varnish patinas was done as early as about 1990in the National Gallery in LondonI only recently began doing experimental reproductions of Renaissance patinas based on these analyses. Almost surprisingly, they were actually rather successful. Now, however, I realize that some of the materials that I used were not what I thought they were. Consequently, I am very anxious to get some help securely distinguishing them. It's not a simple question of the museum having enough personnelit's a question of finding the right person to work together with me in a common endeavor.
Considine: One area in which collaboration has made progress is exhibitionsparticularly the opportunity to undertake technical study in preparation for an exhibition catalogue or technical study of the objects, once they have been gathered at one place for an exhibition. The work that Jane Bassett did following the Getty exhibition on Adriaen de Vries is a good example of that. In general, the field has come to expect some technical information in a scholarly catalogue. In fact, the Getty Foundation really expects that of an applicant seeking funding for a permanent-collection catalogue.
Stone: But the technical information isn't integrated into the text. One frequently reads catalogues where it's obvious that the people who wrote the art-historical part and the people who wrote the technical part did not read one another's work. I find this over and over again. It's as if they were in different countries and communicating by carrier pigeon.
Considine: I agree. But I think we just have to take heart that it's a long process and that we are making progress.
Walch-von Miller: As I've said, I think we need a medium to come together in collaboration. It's really hard to develop this conversation between fields. What we need, on the one hand, is education that explains to young people how necessary it is. On the other hand, we have some responsibility ourselveswe have to provide good examples of the wonderful output that can come through teamwork and collaboration.
Considine: I guess the final question is why are we doing this? To what end is our researchwhat does it serve, and is it worthwhile?
Stone: One can at least hope that both humane and scientific studies will continue to be driven by our curiosity, even if their ultimate end remains obscure, like most everything else. It is the simple enlargement of our curiosity that makes the most difference. While there may be many wrong answers, there are few wrong questions.
Levin: I think what may be partly behind Brian's question is something that I heard early on in this conversationthis notion that in some instances technology or a new technique drives the research, rather than an important question.
Stone: Well, that's not unique to any one discipline. The technique tends to drive the research rather than curiosity.
Levin: In this particular field, is that more or less of a problem than in other endeavors?
Stone: One thing that is obvious to meat least about life in a museum and life in a university, because I've been in bothis that success at a university and success at a museum are based on different predicates. Success in an academic setting, especially the sciences, means succeeding in an area where others are succeedingthat is, in a ''hot" field. You can work on exceedingly clever projects and discover marvelous facts, but if they are not of interest to your contemporaries, you're nowhere. But in a museum setting, where objects are being acquired and you're forced to say something about them at short notice, it is more a question of sheer survival. You're not so much trying to keep up with your peers as trying to prevent yourself from being caught up in some strikingly outrageous error. In such a situation, you are obliged to be curious about virtually everything, and I find that very exciting.
Lechtman: At least in this country, we're being embarrassed by the failure of the liberal arts education system. The liberal arts once really did allow you to operate in a complex world, giving you the ability to handle data from the sciences, the humanities, and the social sciencesmaybe not all of it in the same depth, but you had to be able to manage disparate data fields and perspectives. Now that's disappeared. We are trying in this fieldwhich joins art history, archaeology, scienceto put back what was once available to students in their higher education and what is no longer there because of the fractionation that's occurred. The only way to be successful in our field is to be able to manage several sets of data and to be able to ask questions that can be solved by combining those data sets. When I look at a museum catalogue these days, I am gratified to see how much more technical information there isand not just in the appendix. But it's slow. What Dick tries to do in the museum, what Katharina tries to do with her institution, and what I'm trying to do at an institute of technology is to break down this divide between science on one side and the rest of the world on the other. And in my tenure here, I would say that I've been barely successful.
Stone: I have art history students now whoit is clear from their responseshave managed, in the 21st century, to get to a graduate education without once having been exposed to a physical science.
Lechtman: This is what we're against. But I think a great deal of progress has been made. You're quite right, Brianin museums and catalogues, that's where we see it most obviously. We just have to keep up the fight. It's extraordinarily important. A couple of years ago I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art at a time when it was about to receive a major gift in support of its conservation center. I met with the museum's director and I said, ''You know, if you really want to keep your conservation staff interested in doing things that they feel are important, of the five days a week that those people are working in the lab, you've got to give them one day a week to do their own research. People need to be able to do their own thingand if they can, then the likelihood is higher that they will reach out to work with other people on subjects that they find interesting and exciting."
Considine: The Getty Foundation had a category of grants for midcareer training for museum conservators. The grant could have paid for the conservator's leave and a replacement position. Nobody even applied for them.
Lechtman: That's probably because their bosses said that they couldn't.
Stone: Well, it's not quite that simple. If you're working in a museum, you're trapped by the museum schedule. You may ultimately have time to do your own work, but it has to be worked in around the schedule of shows and acquisitions. We always seem to have three major shows coming in at exactly the same time. The museum tries to schedule it otherwise, but something always seems to prevent that from happening.
Lechtman: I do think, in fact, that tremendous progress has been made. It's just that it's very slow. When you're in it day-to-day, you don't notice the advances so much. But I think that the advances are measurable, and the successes sometimes have been brilliant.