Advocates for art conservation: The University of Pretoria Museums’ conservation efforts

Posted on October 26, 2023

Underpinning the daily curatorial and collections responsibilities of the University of Pretoria (UP) Museums is the work of conservators. It is the duty of the museum conservators to safeguard, protect, conserve and preserve more than 120 000 artefacts, objects and artworks in the institution’s diverse collections. UP is one of few institutions in higher education that have a dedicated museum art conservation space to look after and care for its art and heritage collections. The UP Museums are renowned professionals and specialists with both practical and theoretical skills in all forms of conservation.

At UP, the museum conservation space is located on the Hatfield Campus in the 110-year-old historical building, known as the iconic Old Arts Building. This specialised space comprises of large flat, open working surface areas, drawer cabinets for housing flat and larger works and upright bespoke racks for temporary storage of all sizes of paintings. The conservation space is further divided into working areas for dry conservation, use of chemicals in conservation such as a Lab Companion which is a mobile unit for fume extraction, a ductless fume cabinet for mixing chemicals, a dark imaging room and there are also ample large cabinets for storing frequently used conservation materials and equipment, as well as a small conservation reference section for research. The museum conservation space faces the north and has ample natural light, ideal for conservation as abundant daylight improves the perception of fine details and colours on works of art. The role of light and the effective use of natural light is a working strategy in a museum conservation context.

The museum conservation space is where a majority of UP’s art collection is conserved, which includes oil paintings, works on paper such as prints, graphics, watercolours, acrylics, to a wide range of contemporary art material types. Conservators form an understanding of the different types of materials in the University’s collections as they have to treat a wide range of artefacts, specimens, artworks, historical and cultural objects. Material that is usually treated within a museum environment can be organic or inorganic and is made of glass, wood, stone, bone, ivory, paper, ceramic, clay, metal or synthetic. Each type of material requires a different type of conservation approach and different treatment method. The conservator is also expected to advise and monitor the museum’s macro and micro environment to prevent deterioration and damage and also oversee the safe packing, storage and exhibition of the museum collections.

The UP Museum art conservator Sandra Markgraaf is assisted by Hannes Elsenbroek and is supported by the curatorial team, as museum preservation is a responsibility for all museum staff. The conservator employs a variety of methods and techniques to preserve, stabilise and attempt to slow down the process of deterioration as much as possible. This involves conservation research such as documentation, examination and analyses, employed together with scientific techniques coupled with an acute awareness of materiality, authenticity, integrity, historical significance, meaning and any cultural sensitivities. Museum conservators are required daily to conduct ongoing condition assessments to interpret and recognise types of physical or chemical deterioration and to preserve the object or artwork employing a minimum amount of intervention. Conservators are on the constant lookout for risks and deterioration both within the museum galleries, storage and directly with collections. Remedial treatment is often a last resort to restore and minimise deterioration and damage and is most often used alongside curatorial decisions and ethical decisions whether to treat an artwork or not. Conservation requires perpetual management of collections and this is never done in isolation or individually – teamwork and collective decision-making is critical. Often the role of the museum conservator and curators is to engage in transdisciplinary research, to advise other departments on their collections and at times, provide specialist services to the public in caring for and maintaining their precious art collections or private collections. While the UP Museum conservation space serves both the academic, training and teaching programme, it is also an important social tool and community service beyond the traditional role of the university.

Museum conservation in the 21st century is about managing change and at the same time, preserving original objects. Museums and their environment habitually change, and those who engage with conservation, whether it be staff, students, conservators, researchers or visitors need to be acutely aware of the importance of care and safeguarding any form of heritage within a university museum setting. There are many reasons for conservation as a profession. Museum conservation is complex and a continual process that determines what must be conserved, how is it cared for, how is it used, by whom and for whom. Thus conservation is both practice and theory, combined with ethical decision-making, principles and a set code of ethics. The UP Museums are important social and research drivers for all forms of conservation and advocates for broader heritage conservation. This is exemplified by their membership to the International Council of Museums for Conservation (ICOM-CC) and the daily work of the conservators and the responsibility of curators is benchmarked against best international practices.

UP internalises best conservation practices for its art and heritage collections, beyond support to the teaching, learning and research space. Within a university museum approach, conservation is continuing professional maintenance and effectively a race against time, and the elements. Despite challenges, the UP Museums remain committed to address the conservation needs of the diverse museum and wider institutional collections and continue to raise awareness about why conservation is important in higher education. The available, modern and dedicated space used for art conservation, among other needs, remains a critical space for researchers to access, work and examine collections within a safe and controlled environment. This space remains a living museum laboratory, where preservation and conservation of the diverse types of materials in the museums are cared for by the University of Pretoria.

However, the survival of institutional collections hinges on the work of the museums, the conservators, scientific investigation, policies, ethics, resources and funding. There are never enough resources for museum conservation as collections are forever expanding and in dire need of better conditions, so time is always of the essence. If you are interested in supporting the restoration of artworks and wish to assist the UP Museums in improving the environment for the curated art and heritage collections, please reach out and for further information on the UP Museums and their conservation efforts contact: [email protected] or Tel: 012 420 3146.

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