I found a great article recently (via a tweet from Austin Kleon) about the restoration of a broken sculpture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. While Carol Vogel details the process in her article, she also reveals the emerging trend of museums opening these processes to the public. This is a departure from what has been a strict secrecy in museums about showing the public how the sausage gets made, or that they were even making sausage. They thought it would ruin the enjoyment of the restored work. And there may have been a time when that was true, but as director of the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague notes, “We live in a time when the public wants to look behind the scenes and museums are finally becoming more open about it.”
Italy’s Uffizi Gallery in Florence, for example, had conservators working in a glassed-in lab so visitors could watch the action. Right now, in Belgium, Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” better known as the Ghent Altarpiece of 1432 — one of the world’s most famous panel paintings — is undergoing a seven-year restoration. Financing from the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles has helped pay for it, including an interactive website showing the work in minute detail. (The public can also visit the three sites in Ghent where it is being restored.)
Some of these open restorations are viewable in the museum, others are at a separate location for now, no doubt because the museums were not designed to showcase this work. I imagine museums of future will be designed where these things are given more equal weight in the layout of the building. Access to these restorations allows us to watch art history being written.
This idea is exciting to me on a deeper level than simply my desire to see how things are made. It’s exciting because it is art affectionately serving art. Think of all the art and art history students getting to see the nuts and bolts of the work of the masters and have a hand in restoring their beauty. It’s taking everything we’ve learned from those masters, every advancement of technology, and aiming it back at keeping our history in the physical world for another couple generations.