By Noah Charney
Published Dec 3, 2010
Julia Brennan discusses her adventures in conservation, the ARCA Masters Program in the Study of Art Crime, and what to do with The Ghent Altarpiece.
Julia Brennan is a renowned art conservator specializing in textiles. In an interview with Noah Charney, Julia discusses her international adventures in conservation, the ARCA Masters Program in the Study of Art Crime, and what to do with The Ghent Altarpiece.
1. What sort of conservation work do you do?
I am a textile conservator and specialize in treatments, as well as educational outreach and preventative conservation training in Asia and Africa. I own Textile Conservation Services, based in Washington DC. (www.caringfortextiles.com) Textile treatments include testing, structural analysis, cleaning, repair, stabilizations, overlays, re-weaving, supports, consolidations, re-mounting and display. It is a lot of fine hand work and very detail oriented. I work on everything from the soft blanket you were swaddled in to giant armorial 15th and 16th century Flemish tapestries. I have enjoyed stabilizing and rehabilitating delicate 18th and 19th century samplers, embroideries and quilts, ethnographic textiles from every continent, historic costumes, christening dresses, military flags, standards, guideons, epaulets, and shoes, fans, and even hats. I have been honored to work on some very important cultural relics: George Washington’s 18th century waistcoats, Martha Washington’s needle-case, Babe Ruth’s kimono, Lou Gehrig’s jersey, President Lincoln’s 1864 Inaugural Coat, Lafayette’s Masonic apron given to President Washington, and James Brown’s “sex” jumpsuit. Another aspect of my conservation work is assessing historic collections and providing museums and collectors with guidelines for care, treatment and display. I meet amazing people and learn so much history in my daily work.
2. What is the process, when you receive a commission of a textile to restore?
I start with close examination of the surface, structure, framing, supports and historic documentation. The physical details provide many clues into the history of the object. Old tack holes, basting threads, adhesives, wooden strainers, inscriptions, and previous repairs can all reveal past secrets. Before and after treatment photography, as well as written treatment proposals and final reports are part of the code of ethics operative in the conservation profession. It’s essential that future colleagues or owners have a well documented history of the conservation treatment. These records accompany the work into the future. When I worked on the Abraham Lincoln coat, I was grateful to have fairly detailed notes and files about the previous treatments and storage of this precious item. I have to say that some of the cutting edge treatments of half a century or more ago would be considered an appalling breach of ethics, history, and conservation technique today.
My work is guided by the dictum of “less is better” and my interventions must be reversible. So, for example, the decision to ‘clean’ a textile is carefully weighed, prefaced by testing and research. I do not restore a textile to its original appearance or condition. Even if this were possible, (and it is usually not) my goal is to stabilize, provide aesthetic harmony, and extend its life. Often this approach requires eliciting the known details and history from my client. I always talk to the owner about provenance and rightful ownership. To date, it has been rare to encounter an illicit textile in my private work. When they do surface, I do not take the commission. I encourage the owner to consider thier legal obligations and liabilities, and ethical responsibilities.
3. You do work abroad in some exotic places. Could you describe the work and how it comes to you?
I have worked extensively in Bhutan, as well as Algeria, Madagascar and Thailand. I have been fortunate to be the recipient of both Getty Foundation and US State Department grants to implement preventative conservation training workshops in situ. These programs are based at national and local museums, and monasteries. The scope of work and MOU’s are carefully worked out in advance, so that the needs of the host institution and country are met. A discretionary budget for imported materials usually accompanies the grant, so that I can hit the ground running with the necessary tools to train and teach. In Bhutan, I have trained over 20 lay staff and monks in the basics of preventative conservation, care of artifacts, and the establishment of accurate photographic and written collections databases. I had the privilege of visiting monasteries and seeing important textiles that are centuries old. In Madagascar, we rescued the only remaining 19th century collection of traditional “lambas” ceremonial textiles, conducted selected treatments, set up a new storage room, mounted 25 pieces for a national exhibition and trained 12 museum staff from all over the island. Everywhere I’ve worked, people are so eager to learn the basic tools of the conservation trade and protect their own cultural heritage. It is up to people like us to continue to use our expertise to develop low-tech recordation, provenance, preservation and storage techniques that are affordable and sustainable in places where even electricity is not yet a constant. This work is enormously gratifying for me and empowering for my students.
4. You graduated from the ARCA Masters Program in the Study of Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection in 2009. What did the program offer to you?
The ARCA Masters Program provided me with a rich and intriguing background in the world of the illicit trade, and how individuals can play a part to stem it. It’s the age old battle of humanity – good versus evil, private greed vs. public heritage. The range of courses and talented professors illuminated and connected the complex intertwining threads of corruption, black and grey markets, organized crime, policies and practices of major museums and auction houses, the necessity for a global provenance or object ID system, collections security, the importance of the actual physical object, forgery and faking of both artifact and paperwork, national laws and conventions, law enforcement, and the role that individuals and governments play in the protection of cultural property. The program gave me the knowledge and confidence to bring the subject of the illicit trade to my own profession and encourage colleagues to take a closer look and stronger stand. I thought it was particularly useful for those conservators who work in multiple settings such as museums, corporate buildings, and private homes; multiple countries; and with diverse types of textiles of many uses and from many eras. The ARCA Masters Program boosted my tool kit for working with foreign governments and institutions, in protecting their cultural heritage. And who knows what will come next? For me, living in historic Amelia, Italy fostered life time friendships among local residents and my classmates, a deeper appreciation for the EU and its challenges (our future) , and some fine mentors and connections.
5. Tell me about your work since completing the ARCA Masters Program.
I wrote my thesis on the topic of the role conservators can actively play in stemming the illicit trade. That prompted doing a seminar for graduate students at George Mason University’s Program in Transnational Crime on the subject of how art trafficking and organized crime (drugs, money, arms, human trafficking) intersect. In October 2010, I gave a paper on my thesis topic to the International Council of Museums Conservation meeting on legal issues at MOMA in New York. This has inspired me to work on clipping my thesis into publishable articles.
I was the volunteer conservator and jack of all trades for the ARCA exhibition on Art Crime at Washington DC’s Museum of Crime and Punishment. The show was a big hit and extended by six months. I’ve watched Orson Welles “F for Fake” three times and decided it is my most favorite movie. My chapter on teaching preventative conservation in Asia and Africa was published in “The New Textile Conservator” by Elsevier. I’ve commuted to Thailand four times training conservators and helping to establish a new museum devoted to textiles – which will open in August 2011.
My company did the conservation treatment and customized preparation of mannequins for 25 historic costumes for the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of African American History and Culture exhibit on the 75th anniversary of the Apollo Theatre. The show is now touring the United States.
Most recently, I did a conservation assessment of the textile collection of the America’s Suffragettes. These included some of the most powerfully inscribed banners and embroidered aprons made by women while in prison for demonstrating for the woman’s vote. All of these experiences reinforce the importance of preserving and protecting our history!
6. What do you think are the greatest challenges facing the conservation world?
Broadly, it is the protection of huge, ancient outdoor archeological and historic sites and the sheer mass of our cultural heritage that is at risk from war, conflict, greed, poverty, lack of security, and environmental disasters. The biggest challenge is educating a much wider audience about these perils, and persuading stakeholders from business, arts, government and non profits to invest in long term protection. This can be done through increased education, outreach and activism, and clever collaborations. This is evident in the Smithsonian’s leadership in the arts conservation rescue project in Haiti. But this needs to be done on a huge scale, with effective local grassroots projects. The Getty, ICOMOS and ICCROM are leaders in this field, spearheading projects in Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Cambodia and many other countries. Conservation education needs to incorporate a more global approach for protection of cultural heritage and make it one of the pillars of conservation work, forging a strong alliance in the field. We may disagree about specific treatments, but not about the need to broadly protect using basic time-tested methods. Our biggest challenge is to get that message out there and act on it. We live in such a fluid global society, and the importance of protecting our common heritage, whether in India, Madagascar, Colombia or Algeria, is increasingly important so that we can pass our stories onto our great grand children.
7. There has been a recent debate about how much cleaning should be done on Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. Would you like to comment?
I have not followed the work closely. Like the 15th century “Sarejevo Haggadah,” The Ghent Altarpiece has an incredible history. How it has survived so many thefts, transports, hidings and restorations is truly remarkable. (Don’t we wish artifacts could talk?) The fact that it is intact (with a replaced panel, added supports and previous in-paintings) is astonishing. It has a power and integrity that seems to defy human interference.
To that point, I think that less is more. History stands to inform us that many past interventions were bold and harmful. Today, we still do not hold the magic solution for the eternal longevity or perceived beauty of The Ghent Altarpiece. Our solvents may be tested and proven, and better than previous ones. But like the medical field, the conservator’s methods are constantly evolving.
Triage to prevent loss or damage is necessary. But cleaning is irreversible. We do not know how our methods will hold up, or what history we will dissolve with our solvents and spit. Tastes change and what is considered pure and historically correct today may not be in 100 years. Cleaning presumes that we know more than our successors and are better at it, and that we somehow know that Jan van Eyck’s intention lies beneath a ‘distorted surface’. There is time yet for The Ghent Altarpiece. Prudence, respect and continued research and testing is the best path for now. The New York Times reported today (2 December 2010) that there are three times as many stars as we knew. Who would have known? Certainly not Jan van Eyck. Perhaps we have three times as many wishes to protect our planet and treasures.
For more information on the ARCA Masters Program in the Study of Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, please visit www.artcrime.info/education.
This article appeared on Suite101.com, a website for insightful writers and informed readers.