At the Getty Villa overlooking the ocean at Malibu, ancient Roman and Greek frescoes, statues and paintings decorate the halls and marble walls. A daunting Hercules statue stands confidently on view in its own gallery. It’s here that graduate students in the UCLA/Getty Program on the Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials learn how to care for ancient pieces of art.
Conservation is an integral part of the J. Paul Getty Trust, the umbrella organization which encompasses the Getty Foundation, the Getty Conservation Institute, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute. The Trust is one of very few institutions that lists conservation as equal to exhibition and curation in its mission statement, as opposed to others like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The Broad, said Ellen Pearlstein, a UCLA professor of information studies and a faculty member for the UCLA/Getty program. The program is a collaboration between UCLA and the Getty Conservation Institute.
The Getty engages in conservation through three main paths. Research and practice by the Getty’s own conservateurs, or conservation specialists, take place at the Getty Conservation Institute located at the Getty Center. These conservateurs also practice at the Getty Villa. Finally, conservation is done through the graduate program with UCLA, said William Roy, a UCLA research professor of sociology and interim chair of the UCLA/Getty program.
What is considered when trying to preserve paintings?
Color of the paint
Age of the painting
Humidity and temperature in location of the painting
The artist of the painting
Pearlstein said preserving cultural heritage requires special training and that the art of conservation essentially is the art of preserving memories for the future.
“We have these materials that are significant to the understanding of all of humanity, and they hold memories for people that are passed down over many years and teach people about the people that came before them,” Pearlstein said.
Since its inception in 2005, the program has offered a masters degree and a Ph.D. in conservation. A degree in conservation constitutes a crossroads of the sciences and the humanities, Roy said. The program itself involves taking courses both in the history of the art as well as the scientific methods required for preservation.
A photograph of the “Attic Panathenaic Amphorae”
The “Attic Panathenaic Amphorae,” given to winners of the Panathenaic Games, were filled with olive oil from trees said to be sacred to the Greek goddess Athena. (Emily Ng/Daily Bruin)
The science-oriented lecture courses cover the structures and properties of deterioration for various materials such as ceramics and glass, as well as organics – natural materials – like stone and mosaics of old paintings, said Austin Anderson, a UCLA graduate student in conservation.
“We’re trying to make sure that the cultural material that the world has is here for future generations to enjoy,” Anderson said.
This scientific approach is integrated into the humanities-based portions of the program that are focused on understanding the historical components of the art, Roy said.
Every member of the faculty has a joint appointment, or designation, meaning they are equally involved in both conservation and another discipline that may or may not be related to art and conservation. For example, in addition to conservation, one faculty member is in the materials science and engineering department, Pearlstein is in the information studies department, Roy is in the sociology department, and the newest member will have a focus in art history.
Anderson said the program allowed him to combine his interests in art, history, archaeology and chemistry. This intersection of disciplines is an essential part of the study of conservation, which emphasizes an understanding of its significance in addition to knowing the physical processes, he said.
What’s the difference between archaeological and ethnographic materials?
Archaeological materials are dug up from the ground by archaeologists, while ethnographic materials are found by anthropologists in the field
Archaeological materials are older than ethnographic materials
Ethnographic materials are damaged, while archaeological materials are intact
They’re the same
Conservation is not an exact science, and at times it can be controversial. For example, the Sistine Chapel underwent restorations that yielded a significant amount of heated debate regarding the role of conservateurs, Roy said. A team of Vatican restorers had to decide how to repaint the walls of the chapel and how to go about making certain repairs. The restorers had to make judgments on whether to repaint the walls to look like how they did when the chapel was built or to leave them in their aged state, Roy said.
Oftentimes, concerns arise as to whether the art should show its history or be presented as it was at the time of its inception. Essentially, conservateurs are tasked with the question of how much of the history should be preserved, and how much of it should be reversed, Roy said.
Kenneth Lapatin, the curator of antiquities at the Getty museum, said there is an important distinction between restoration and conservation. Restoration is replacing something that’s missing or covering up damage. However, Lapatin said the goal of Getty conservateurs is to stabilize the improved condition of the objects, make them durable for the future and sometimes clean them up aesthetically.
In Southern California, a consideration in conservation and stabilization of ancient artwork is the potential threat of earthquakes. Getty conservateurs are world leaders in the field of seismic mitigation, Lapatin said, which is the reduction of potential damage done to art in the event of an earthquake.
“We know there’s going to be an earthquake here, we don’t know when, so we don’t just put things on the shelves and hope the earthquake doesn’t hit or that when it hits we’ll pick up the pieces,” Lapatin said.
Lapatin said the Getty museum has been working on ways to mitigate the potential damage of earthquakes and has been sharing these techniques with other museums and institutions around the world, including the Greek Archaeological Service.
All museums, even those outside of earthquake-prone areas, have to be concerned about stability. When institutions such as the British Museum loan pieces to the Getty museum, it becomes the Getty’s responsibility to care for the piece, and part of that care includes reducing any potential damage caused by earthquakes, Lapatin said.
Another aspect of conservation is the assurance that any intervention taken is recorded and can be reversed if necessary. Conservationists document every part of the conservation being done, trying to make everything that is done reversible, Anderson said.
During the Renaissance, if a statue was found without a head, they may have shaved down the jagged break in the statue and then attached a new head, Lapatin said. This type of intervention would be irreversible. He said modern conservateurs, however, would most likely leave the break, or if they wanted to attach a new head, would use molds and join the pieces together so that it could be easily undone without any damage.
An infographic comparing and contrasting The Getty, The Louvre, LACMA and MOMA
(Graphic reporting by Deirdre Klena/Daily Bruin, Graphic by Qirui Wu/Daily Bruin)
“You can undo the treatment and there would be no damage to the piece,” Lapatin said. “Any kind of integration of missing fragments or replacement of missing fragments, that should be reversible.”
These types of conservation techniques that focus primarily on stabilization of the pieces are at the core foundation of the Getty museum’s conservation mission. Logistically, the Getty has provided the graduate students with state-of-the-art conservation facilities, the most up-to-date tools and technology, and access to and guidance of the Getty’s own staff of conservationists, Pearlstein said.
The relationship between UCLA and the Getty museum has an important impact on not only the UCLA community, but also the greater Los Angeles and even world community, Pearlstein said. It teaches a new generation of conservateurs who will ensure that art, and therefore culture, is preserved. Its resources place it in a position to disperse large amounts of critical knowledge in the field of art and conservation, Pearlstein said.
“The Getty is very good at what they do,” Anderson said. “Those who are good at what they do should have a helping hand in training the next generation.”