The conservation of artworks at a museum is one of the four pillars of museum work along with collecting, researching, and exhibiting/educating. One of the fundamental tasks of the conservation department at the Museum Ludwig is thus the long-term preservation of the artworks in the collection. These include installations, sculptures, paintings, drawings, photographs, videos, and outdoor sculptures, among other things. The conservators working at the museum are all graduates of various academic programs and departments of restoration and conservation.
A large part of a conservator’s workday is spent documenting the condition of the individual artworks in the permanent exhibition and temporary exhibitions as well as loans. The handling (moving and transport) as well as installation and removal of art objects are prepared and supervised by the conservation department. Special procedures, measurements, and directions for the artwork are documented in installation instructions—for example, where and how it should be placed in the exhibition space. When artworks from the Museum Ludwig’s collection are loaned to museums in Germany and abroad, their condition is also checked on site by conservators from the Museum Ludwig, who supervise the installation and removal. Particularly in the case of very fragile objects, conservators accompany the works during transport.
At the beginning of each restoration, the same questions are asked about an art object, which can lead to different answers:
What does the object look like?
What is the object made of?
How is it constructed, and what materials did the artist work with?
What condition is the object in?
What is the artist’s intention?
What led to its current condition?
Technical examinations can provide information about the materials and techniques used by an artist and are also used to verify authenticity. The conservation department at the Museum Ludwig collaborates with various scientific laboratories and universities in order to resolve these questions and professionally preserve artworks.
Thus, each restoration is based on looking, observing, describing, and understanding what happens to the work as a whole. The conservator first asks what led to the damage. Is it an inherent aspect of the object (due to its construction or material)? Did it occur due to the handling? Or, for example, did the exhibition conditions lead to the object’s current condition? Optimal lighting and environmental conditions in storage and exhibition spaces slow down degradation and aging processes, as has been impressively demonstrated in scientific studies.
All these observations are recorded in a description of the condition, which is used to develop an individual restoration concept. This includes material analyses and tests on specially developed samples in order to prepare and carry out professional restorations.
The aim is not—as is often assumed—to restore the artwork to a like-new condition. The goal is always to stabilize the current condition of an artwork so that no further damage occurs. The focus is on preserving the artwork according to the artist’s intention and being able to present it to visitors. All measures undertaken during a restoration are documented and recorded in photographs and writing for reference during later restoration work.
At the end of the active restoration stage, there is often the question of how to best present the work in the exhibition spaces and how to pack it properly. This is what is referred to as preventative conservation measures, which include protective packaging made of archival-grade materials, protective glass, special mounts, materials to protect against vibration on the backs of paintings, and pest management to prevent further damage.
The condition of newly acquired art is also documented by the conservation department. Preventive and conservation measures are also necessary for works of modern and contemporary art in order to prevent or slow down processes of damage and degradation. Modern and contemporary art uses many materials and media that are not resistant to aging, which are often significantly more unstable than hand-made pre-industrial art materials.
In order to preserve the artist’s intention, the Museum Ludwig collaborates with artists and the administrators of their estates on necessary restoration projects. In order to foster the continued transmission of knowledge, the Museum Ludwig’s conservation department cooperates with international universities where conservation is taught as well as with freelance conservators and supports university education in conservation by supervising academic theses.