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Oral History Project

"Archival Records of Art Conservators"

by E. Richard McKinstry Andrew W. Mellon, senior librarian H.F. du Pont Winterthur Museum

Beyond their considerable conservation skills, conservators often have knowledge that few others possess. Such a sentence might not surprise anyone reading this article, since the principal audience of AIC News consists of conservators. However, advanced researchers in the world of academics, Winterthur Library’s primary audience, are often unaware of the contributions that art conservators have made to studies that they are themselves pursuing.

Since our first acquisition in 1981 of the diaries and daybook of Horace Robbins Burdick (1844–1942), we have added about a dozen collections containing the records of art conservators, mainly from paintings conservators. Details about what we have are available through our online library catalog on Winterthur’s website at Conducting a search using the subject ‘art restorers’ will reveal what we have.

Our records hold great potential for those who want to conduct technical studies, follow the work of a specific conservation trend, or study a particular individual. For example, this year we received an application for a short-term research fellowship from an art history professor who is interested in using our collec- tions for a study of American painting practices from the colonial period to the Gilded Age. In particular, he wants to concentrate on color theories and the history of artists’ pigments, oils, solvents, glazing, and binding media, along with other sub-topics. His application contains a list of materials that he wishes to see, including artists’ painting manuals, supply catalogs, books on color and art theory, original manuscript material from Thomas Sully and other artists, and paintings in our museum collection. He also mentions that he hopes to talk with Winterthur’s paintings conservators because of their knowledge of pigments and oil glazing media. Sadly, his application did not include a statement about the value of our growing collections of records of art conservators, specifically paintings conservators.We hope that he will discover the value of these records when he begins his research time with us as part of his fellowship award.

Such possibilities include the papers of Russell and Eleanor Quandt, which we received in 1991 and 1992. Russell was a paintings conservator dur- ing the 1950s and ’60s in and around Washington, DC, and Eleanor assisted her husband in his private practice, assuming responsibilities for technical documentation, reports, correspondence, and historical research.Together, and apart from performing conservation work, they conducted research into the materials and techniques of painting prior to the American Revolution, concentrating on the anonymous painters of the Hudson RiverValley during the first half of the eighteenth century. The Quandt papers have many folders with contents relevant to our research fellow’s topic.They studied, took notes on, and did treatments of many paintings of Upper Hudson Valley limners; they kept articles and papers by others on early American painting; and they retained their correspondence on many and var- ied topics. We suspect that our research fellow will find their work useful as he conducts his own.

In an article published in 2004, Joyce Hill Stoner and I wrote about the importance of making collections of art conservator’s records available to the public (Journal of Archival Organization, vol. 2 no. 3). Our views about the importance of preserving such records are summarized as follows:“As people consider artwork a legacy of American culture so too will they also consider the records generated by individuals who have spent their working lives guaranteeing its long-term survival. Conservators and archival repositories need to work together to ensure that records relating to the treatment of art objects in their many forms be retained and made available to researchers generations from now.”

In addition to their research potential, we have identified seven other areas of value of art conservator’s records:

  • Documentation in writing and imagery of specific works of art undergoing treatment
  • Documentation of lost works of art
  • Information regarding provenance
  • Treatment records used to inform subsequent treatments
  • Art conservator’s records contributing to the study of the history of conservation
  • Records of professional activities, meetings, and teaching
  • Maintenance of reference libraries and supply catalogs

If conservators are considering the placement of their records in public institutions, they need to be mind- ful of confidentiality issues. It is of paramount importance to respect the privacy of individuals and their posses- sions; less so, arguably, regarding institutions. In placing records with libraries, conservators may wish to suggest restrictions on access to material that is considered private in nature. Contracts can be written stating that records will someday be made available to researchers, but it is difficult to add such a clause retrospectively.

Although Winterthur’s library has seen its collections of records of art conservators grow since 1981, I suspect that few other libraries have experienced similar expansion.These records present opportunities that archivists undoubtedly have not pursued either because they were unaware of the records’ value or do not know who the conservators are in their respective geographical areas. If you are interested in making your records available to new generations of researchers, please consider contacting a local library or archive and begin the conversation.

-Originally published in AIC News Vol. 32, No. 4 (July 2007)