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History of Conservation in Austria: Tacit Knowledge and Disciplinary Professionalisation

Project leaders:
Wolfgang Baatz, Sigrid Eyb-Green

Project team:
Catherine Bouvier, Magdalena Schindler

3 years
extended until 31.10.2022

Funded by:
Anniversary Fund of the Österreichische Nationalbank (project no. 17909)

ÖNB | Anniversary Fund
led by Wolfgang Baatz und Sigrid Eyb-Green, Institute for Conservation and Restoration
Duration: 1.11.2018 – 31.10.2022

The key objective of the project is to research the history of conservation. Originating in the arts and craftsmanship, it experienced intensive professionalization since the mid-20 th century. Implicit knowledge assumed an important position and was passed on either verbally or through practice. Therefore, scientific dissemination of results and new techniques remained an afterthought. Thus, many crucial parts of the history and scientific development are not readily available. They remain intangibly locked away in the memories of the experts who shaped the field. With every loss of such an expert, our understanding of the subject suffers, too.

To solve this problem, we propose to perform, for the first time in Austria, a systematic survey to record the history in an objective manner. Since artworks and cultural heritage are always the product of their biography, the preserved knowledge and our increased understanding thereof will be instrumental to future measurements.

The aim of the project is to describe the history of the discipline and the profession in Austria in the second half of the 20th century and to put it into a scientific-historical context. During this time, fundamental changes in conservation took place: the establishment of international organizations, the specialization and institutionalization of education and the development of many new methods and materials. These changes also transformed the public perception and self-understanding of conservators.

We investigate two very diverse sub-areas–the wall paintings and paper conservation. This focus is reasonable since the development of conservation is experiencing a growing diversification during this period, which is also reflected in the conservation practice. At the same time, however, the comparison also allows to reflect and incorporate general developments and trends. The project is the first phase of a continuous effort to collect and analyse interviews with conservators from the different sub-areas, to preserve knowledge for posterity. The obtained findings can thus be further consolidated in the future and the history of conservation in Austria continued to be written. The Audiovisual Archive as a cooperation partner will provide the interviews for future research as well.

The research design is based on a social-scientific mixed-methods design. More specifically, it is a sequential mixed-methods design, in which a qualitative phase is followed by a quantitative phase. The results of the qualitative phase are the basis for the quantitatively-oriented survey. This design allows us to obtain a rich and multifaceted representation of the object of research. Methodically, the combination tries to compensate the weaknesses of the one by the strengths of the other method and vice versa. In the qualitative phase, a semi-structured biographical expert interview is used. This is followed by a quantitative questionnaire survey. To supplement the findings, literature and archival documents are being researched and analysed throughout the entire research process.