SAH News

Places Journal: Jorge Otero-Pailos on Experimental Preservation

by Jorge Otero-Pailos | Sep 27, 2016
The words experimental and preservation have, until recently, been kept safely distant from each other. Experiment suggests the dangerous possibility of failure, something to avoid when working on valuable historical and cultural objects. To experiment on such objects is to risk altering the very qualities that make them valuable, and the failures are often publicly denounced. James Beck faulted Gianluigi Colalucci, Maurizio Rossi, Piergiorgio Bonetti, and the rest of the team that restored Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling between 1980 and 1994, for over-cleaning and forever damaging the celebrated frescoes, 1 and John Richardson charged conservators from the Museum of Modern Art in New York with adding varnishes that effectively destroyed Cubist paintings by Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, and others. 2 In these famous cases, preservationists were accused of committing “crimes” against culture, a serious indictment suggesting transgression of the laws and conventions that protect cultural heritage. The stakes are high for experimentation when even slightly altering the microscopic surface of an object can be tantamount to ruining it.

Nonetheless contemporary practitioners defend the need to experiment as necessary for advancing the knowledge of objects — and indeed for protecting their future. But as Erik Langdalen, of the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, points out, this embrace of experimental methods is tempered with caution, self-criticism, even self-doubt. Lars Ramberg’s temporary project from 2005, Zweifel, mounted atop the now-demolished 1976 Palast der Republik in Berlin, expressed this doubt literally, in its very title. These preservationists do not celebrate experimentalism for its own sake, as modernist architects, artists, and scientists once did. 3 Rather they put forth experiments that interrogate conventional ways of preserving objects and offer alternatives that, while practicable, reach beyond institutionalized modes. And they often come to preservation from different disciplines — art, architecture, engineering, history, data science, material science, philosophy — bringing with them novel methods. They are simultaneously outsiders and insiders.

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