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Is accessible conservation more than a PR trick?

3 April 2017

If its splendid decorative scheme invites comparisons with the Sistine Chapel, in its approach to conservation the Painted Hall at Greenwich bears no resemblance at all to its Italian counterpart. The Sistine Chapel restoration was criticised for its lack of transparency when pictures were made available exclusively to the Nippon Television Network Corporation. In contrast, the cleaning of James Thornhill’s vast painted ceiling, dating from 1707–26, is about to open to the public, who are invited on a 60-minute tour to ‘discover the painting’s mysteries as they are revealed for the first time in half a century.’ A 60ft-high observation desk allows viewers to watch conservators at work.

The tours are part of a recent and growing trend to make conservation more accessible to the public, whether through sponsorship campaigns like Wash the Face of an Angel at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, or behind-the-scenes tours offered by institutions like the British Museum and the V&A. In 2014, the Cleveland Museum of Art even staged the public cleaning of a Caravaggio, a three-month-long project that attracted enthusiastic engagement via questions submitted on paper and through the hashtag #get2knowcaravaggio.

Social media has proved a powerful tool: Facebook Live broadcasts made by the National Gallery during British Science Week, for example, provided the sensation of access without it having to open its doors. The British Museum makes regular broadcasts which, as a museum spokesperson tells me, are ‘very popular with our audiences and have a high level of interaction, showing the great interest and enjoyment the public receive from behind-the-scenes science and conservation’.

Welcome as such initiatives are, they inevitably offer a partial view. Up on the scaffolding at Greenwich, as technicians dab at Thornhill’s ceiling with water and cotton swabs, the scene could hardly be more benign. No varnish is to be removed, and there is a refreshing emphasis on remedying condition through improved heating and lighting.

It’s a long way from the row that erupted at the Sistine Chapel some 30 years ago, and yet scandal is far from a thing of the past. Temporary exhibitions routinely highlight the huge discrepancies between the cleaning policies of different museums. In 2011 key members of the Louvre’s scientific advisory committee resigned in protest over what was said to be the catastrophic overcleaning of Leonardo’s Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, c. 1503–19.

The relatively straightforward programme underway at Greenwich offers a golden PR opportunity, and certainly it is difficult to imagine the public being invited to witness a trickier operation. But by presenting such an uncomplicated view, the very real risks of conservation treatments are downplayed. Couched in the seductive language of revelation and discovery, conservation is all too easily cemented in the public imagination as not just harmless but necessary, its legitimacy accepted without question. Accordingly, the lure of a newly cleaned picture has become an established means of piquing interest, and in these times of ever-deepening cuts, conservation offers an effective way of attracting both visitors and funding.

But if some attempts to appeal to the public can seem gimmicky, there are less obviously alluring but more substantial developments to celebrate. Since 2011, the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin has been freely available online, while its collaboration with Factum Arte to make 3D scans of Bellini’s Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr, c. 1507, before, during and after restoration represents an opportunity to make meaningful data about the painting’s care available to the public for posterity. Perhaps ironically, the National Gallery has not yet confirmed how this project is progressing, or how, or even if the data will in fact be shared with the public. But if the current taste for public engagement can be tempered with a dash of scepticism,and institutions recognise the value in routinely sharing hard data, the future prospects are good for a frank and transparent approach to the care of cultural heritage.

Ceiling tours of the Painted Hall at Greenwich are daily, from 10am–5pm.