Advice from a Confirmed Benchworker

by Caroline Keck, AIC IIC Fellow
October 2005

Good Communicators we are not.  The majority of us dislike to accept lecture invitations and are inept speakers.  As new boys on the block, we suffer from a hangoverinferiority complex,  intensified by past academic disdain for our ilk as “unworthy of a PhD Degree”, an unacceptable professional occupation.

Our image is downgraded by prevalent terminology.  Competence in maintenance should evoke a concept of us as MIIN STAY for the world inheritance instead of a glimpse of sanitation via mop & pail.  The substitute phrase, “preventive conservation”, is not an improvement; it is too often misunderstood to imply “if it ain’t broke, don’t mend it.”  Study the situation, we will shortly realize we have neglected to weigh the reaction of our listeners to what we keep saying.  It is high time we revived our thoughts. Audience attention has to be earned.

Actually, public attention may be gained by hard work and good theatre.  Nobody will see our efforts as basic necessity unless we convince them of the fact.  Each lecture opportunity should be enjoyable information to our listeners.  Down through the centuries our field has provided endless categories of intriguing subject matter. I offer examples of three.

Sharing experience

Sheldon had a selectively used NEVER-FAIL communication.  He concocted before the eyes of his audience a FAKE masterpiece.  Using double projection he choose details from authentic work and combined it into a phony extra masterpiece, bit by bit. He used Vermeer, world-famous and consistent in depicted details, to assemble a mix of typical ms and accessories into a PHONEY whole.  The audience watched with enlightened notice this re-assemblage and felt superior in their comprehension of how such fakes were turned out!  It also served to make them respect our research and techniques for investigation. Many other GREATS serve this purpose excellently; try it.

Hidden problems

In cases where underlying alterations are obvious,  make use of Infrared and Xray assistance to illustrate covered changes in artist’s design;  sitter’s whim regarding limbs and garments;  coverings for excessive damage, etc. Early on,  we treated a gem of a portrait,  completely overpainted except for the eyes!  On the exposed surface was a sourfaced widow,black garmented,  holding a prayer book,  with a deep brown background.  Visible brushwork unrelated to visible forms occasioned an Xray.  The form combinations in the radiograph induced the owners to request a repaint removal.

It was the same female under that dark gloom; young, smiling with reddish curls and a golden low-cut gown,  holding a letter (illegible) all against a vivid blue background! It would seem that when the Lady’s husband died,  she saw her likeness as unsuited to her sorrowing state and had it brought up to date of misery.  There are fascinating below surfaces.

Artist’s idiosyncrasies

Here there is a frat of variations.  Our favorite was the treatment of a Max Weber painting, CHINESE RESTURANT, lined for the Whitney back when it was located on 8th Street.  We found a fresh canvas stretched behind the painted one,  which showed a small joined rip but otherwise nothing else.  Years later, Mr. Weber asked me to clean a small Rousseau, which he had received from that artist in his youth, and let him watch me do it. I agreed: / Max Weber was a sweetiepie.  When the work was in process I asked Weber if he called his painting, Chinese Restaurant, and why was there that additional canvas backing?  “O, yes, “ he replied, chuckling, “I recall it…we were so broke. I had painted it for the Whitney Annual and it fell off the easel and got punctured.  We were desperate, no time, no funds. My wife suggested I might cover the rip with paper and I did. Then we restretched it with the unused canvas to hide the rip.  At the exhibition, the critics made such a bruhaha over my use of collage that I thought it best to keep my mouth shut.”

Audiences chuckled over this as much as I did.  There are other stories.

Indeed art history is filled with tales to be retold.  Even youngsters, new to the field, have experienced half a dozen hilarious contact already.  Collect, document and use these colorfully; a few at a time, never put too many eggs in one basket, and keep the message clear.  Once you have sold them on our services, the optimum audience to proselyte for us is found in academic reunions, historic societies, environmental organizations and Chambers of Commerce.  Choose the tale best suited to their particular slant and deliver it colorfully and with a bang.

If you are not theatrically inclined, find a colleague who is and supply materials for th job.  We sorely need to make friends and influence people.

Caroline Kohn and Sheldon Keck met at the Fogg Museum in the first course Harvard ever offered related to artifact preservation.  When Sheldon died in l993, their marriage and professional partnership ended four months short of 60 years.  Caroline continued to treat easel paintings. Kohn, an Honorary Fellow of AIC and Of IIC, was born in l908.