PARIS — In a special way, Luis Monreal, the newly appointed director of the Getty Conservation Institute, is looking more to the future than the past.
For your typical student of archeology and art history, this might seem a bit odd, but not for Monreal, who has headed the International Council of Museums here for 11 years.
"Our enormous cultural heritage will be of no value if it cannot be preserved for future generations to enjoy and appreciate," Monreal said in a recent interview at his office in southwest Paris.
"If, for example, the Acropolis in Athens falls victim to air pollution or if the masterpieces in our museums are mistreated by conservators, what will be left for the future? Nothing. Absolutely nothing."
In May, Monreal, 42, a native of Barcelona, will leave Paris to take charge of the conservation institute, which is funded by the $2.1-billion J. Paul Getty Trust. The institute, temporarily based in Marina del Rey, is expected to become a leading center for the scientific preservation and restoration of artworks when it is completed.
Monreal, a small and energetic man, a former field archeologist, museum director and university art professor, oversees an organization with a membership of 8,000 museum specialists in 121 countries. He said he looks forward eagerly to moving to Southern California, "where the weather is certainly better than it is here."
"I think Los Angeles will be the capital of the 21st Century," he said, "both in terms of intellectual and technological leadership. In fact, the 21st Century has already started on the West Coast.
"In the life of cities, there are several periods. When one excavates a city, at the deepest level one finds a small, undeveloped civilization. With each additional level, the city becomes larger and more developed. And, at a certain point, one finds the beginning of decay in a civilization.
"In Los Angeles, the city is in a development stage. It will reach its peak perhaps in the next 20 years. Most other great cities are past their peak. First it was Athens, then Rome, Paris, London, New York, and now it's Los Angeles. I guess you could call it my theory of the westward movement of capitals."
Monreal is subdued, even reticent, when talking about himself, but he beams with enthusiasm when discussing the conservation institute.
"Its potential," he said, "is absolutely limitless, given the wealth of art treasures around the world and the scarcity of resources devoted to conservation.
"Conservation has been an agent of destruction because of lack of knowledge. The improper use of chemical processes is occurring every day in museums around the world, even top museums. In other words, conservators throughout the ages have done as much damage to artworks as the impact of time itself."
He cited an example that occurred 10 years ago in southern Algeria, where scientists tested chemicals on sections of prehistoric rock paintings in an effort to protect the artwork from the rough Sahara winds. The chemicals proved corrosive, he said, and as a consequence parts of the famed Tassili paintings have disappeared.
Modern conservation techniques are at the same stage as the unsophisticated medical procedures of the 18th Century, he said, then added:
"In the 18th Century, physicians were forced to experiment on their patients. Today, in conservation, we do very much the same, and in the process we destroy a few masterpieces, even a few hundred.
"We have a long way to go to bring conservation into the 21st Century. Our objective at the institute will be to transform conservation from an empirical, trial-and-error profession into a more objective, informed practice."
He said there are many outstanding conservation centers around the world, but "virtually no institutions have the capacity to do research at the most advanced levels." In England, France, Italy and Belgium, "the museums have good conservation services responding to the needs of individual collections, but there is no single center for both advanced training and sophisticated research.
"Even at this moment," he went on, "it would be very difficult to spend a lot of money on conservation since there aren't that many people involved in the field."
About 50 conservation researchers are working in the United States and about 300 in the entire world, Monreal said. And between 7,000 and 8,000 conservators are involved in the actual restoration of artworks worldwide, about 1,500 of them in the United States.
High on Monreal's list of priorities for research is the study of the effects of indoor and outdoor air pollution on artworks.
"Los Angeles is a perfect testing field for these types of problems," he said with a laugh. "Human beings can survive in very polluted environments. Perhaps our lives are shortened by a number of years, but we survive nevertheless. But, in the case of works of art, the effects of pollution cannot be known in one generation.