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What is Restorations Role within a Museum Context?

March 5, 2017

The Europe 1600 – 1815 gallery is one of the most recently restored exhibition spaces within the Victoria and Albert museum, filled with golden, shiny and extravagant objects. As I wondered through the space observing the vast wealth on display, I came across an Armchair made for Marie Antoinette. Like many pieces within the museum, the object has been tampered with, so can the chair still be attributed to the initial designers? Should the conservationists also be acknowledged as makers? How much ownership do they now have over the object?

A blog post was created by the V&A themselves about the lengthly conservation process of this specific chair. Justifying the work by saying “Recent research carried out at The Metropolitan Museum of Art found evidence that the suite had in fact been originally upholstered with hand embroidered white fabric with a floral print and the fire screen retained the original fabric… Examination of the surface decoration found the carved woodwork on the suite to have been originally partially gilded and painted white to match the fabric.

This information provided the remit for the conservation treatment of the V&A chair mainly to re-upholster with a more historically accurate fabric and to remove the blue over-paint.”

What is the museum’s goal, to create an object that references time as a period where an object moves and shape-shifts? Or rather as a tool to observe and reflect upon an object in it’s supposedly original aesthetic? Further comments within this document suggested it was more likely to be relevant to the visual appeal of the object.

“There were several losses to the carving on the chair, the most visually disturbing being the cresting above the Marie Antoinette initials.”

The comment itself is mildly offensive, when I think of the connotations associated with the word ‘disturbing’ I don’t think of a damaged chair. Wear and tear often suggests more about the activity and history of an object than if it were left untouched yet this doesn’t seem to be the opinion of the conservationists. Without an historical figure being attributed to the object, it’s unlikely it would be on display at the V&A. Yet, the chair, still needs to reflect ownership in a beautiful and elegant way – causing the perspective of time to be lost via restoration and this process will only become more prevalent in future.

Improvements in technology over the past 30 years have created more opportunities for innovation within this sector. 3D printing, enabled the museum to recreate the lost part of the emblem by mirroring the existing wreath. Demonstrating how modern day practises can be inserted within these objects. Potentially this manipulation makes the object more relevant to our lives today, reflecting how technology is becoming embedded into everyday life. These processes enables us to view and care for objects in a completely new way, potentially as human life spans increase, so do objects. How can science continue to manipulate our relationship with objects and elements of the past? Do we have the right to bring these objects into our own future, or should traditional practices be the only form allowed, suggesting the importance that materiality and process have on the impact on an artefact?

There are both positives and negative aspects to restoring objects, without this process a high percentage of our history would not be preserved but where do we draw the line? If the main aim of restoration is to preserve an object, when is it justified to intervene in it’s design? Personally, I think that an object should exist in the museum in it’s own right, rather than because it was once somebody else’s property. Tailoring the restoration process to this idea could be interesting, instead of constantly restoring objects back to their supposed origins, accepting and acknowledging the artefacts manipulation through time as a positive and inevitable truth. Potentially, reinforcing this idea that although things change over time, they can still represent ownership and beauty in their new form. Going against our culture which aims to defy time and be ageless, constantly battling wrinkles and so on. The V&A has a responsibility to be self aware and realise the cultural implications these processes can have on the publics perception of perfection and consistency over time, as its seems to me they may be subconsciously reinforcing these unachievable goals.

Screen Shot 2017-03-05 at 10.44.05.pngma_chair_32_230e4311b11bdb78aa72ba592a84e183.jpg

Armchair, 1788.

France (paris)

Frame made by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sené (1748–1803)

Painted and gilded by Louis-François Chatard, (ca. 1749-1819)

First Image

Before treatment

1970s upholstery and blue paint

Second Image

Restored version by the V&A


Allen, Z. (2015) The Conservation of Marie Antoinette’s Chair. Available at: (Accessed: 5 March 2017).


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