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Conserving Cultural Identity

June 25, 1989

Luis Monreal was packing for Bolivia when we caught him at the Getty Conservation Institute, where he presides over a quiet campaign intended to change the way the world looks after its cultural heritage. He was going to check a major archeological site.

"Since the Renaissance, people have only been interested in restoring rather than preserving works of art," he told us. "We must do more preventive work. It is more effective and it is cheaper. As in medicine."

So it is that a substantial commitment has been made by the J. Paul Getty Trust to create the Conservation Institute, under the direction of Monreal, and to undertake, for the first time on such a scale, a systematic research and development program dedicated exclusively to art conservation. There already are significant conservation programs under way in other places, including celebrated institutions in Rome and Brussels, but most of them are preoccupied with conserving national collections: "More like field hospitals than research institutions," Monreal said.

"We have realized that even our resources are inadequate because of the extent of the objects requiring conservation around the world, so we function as a catalyst, mobilizing other institutions and their resources," he explained. "Already we have major research programs with 30 institutions in North America and Europe, with some 100 senior scientists involved with state-of-the-art instruments, the first time for many to be mobilized in conservation research." At Caltech, there is a study of environmental damage, including the effect of ozone, "particularly serious for contemporary art done with acrylic paint, as was discovered three years ago." At Oviedo, Spain, a university team skilled in petrology is analyzing stone building deterioration in various climate settings. At the Louvre, a study of the pigments and panels of Italian primitive paintings done before the Renaissance is seeking to understand the effects of aging.

A week earlier, despite the imposition of martial law and U.S. sanctions, a team from China gathered at the institute to review plans to conserve the ancient art of the Mogao andYungang grottoes in northwest and north China. The projects doubtless will be delayed by the Tian An Men Square massacre. But the conservationists know that each year of delay extracts a cost in damage to the treasures.

Governments are coming to understand the importance of preserving the forms of history, but so also are individuals and businesses. "In Italy, for every lira invested by the government in conservation, the private sector invests 9 lire, and there are no tax deductions," Monreal said.

Not far from the temporary quarters of the institute at Marina del Rey, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu applies the research as it becomes available. The collaboration is demonstrated by a Conservation Institute branch laboratory on the grounds of the museum. Restoration remains essential, Andrea Rothe, conservator of paintings, noted, describing a program he has just begun on a marvelous new acquisition, Dosso Dossi's "Allegory of Fortune," painted in the late Renaissance. "It will take two years," he said. "I don't like to hurry." His painstaking project would not have been needed had there been appropriate conservation in past years. Conservation is critical at the museum. The portrait of St. Luke painted more than 600 years ago by Simone Martini is protected by a hermetically sealed Plexiglas box frame to maintain humidity at 65%. It is one of the micro-environments being researched and developed at the institute, a conservation form of particular importance because 30% to 40% of the great art of history employed organic material, including wood, parchment and linen, much of which can be protected only by placing it in an inert atmosphere to prevent bio-deterioration. Elsewhere in the museum, climate is carefully controlled, 30% humidity for the ancient bronzes to prevent oxidation, 55% humidity and 70-degrees Fahrenheit for the painting galleries.

Conservation is not a luxury, Monreal emphasized repeatedly. "This material evidence of past generations cannot be replaced by any written text. There is a value for each of us in these specimens that demonstrate the chain of generations. It is a matter of the cultural identity for each community."

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