Wirtten by Cybele Tom
The excessive use of passive voice in treatment reports, is now something of an inside joke among conservators. Objects are always having things done to them by a nameless entity. This authorial device is part of a conservator’s skill in covering up his or her tracks. Joking aside, the approach is somewhat misleading: conservators are obviously highly influential actors in the life of an object. And as much as conservation is a scientifically-minded field, the individuality of the conservator plays a part. This fact is one of the many reasons I find The Painted King — a new book written entirely in the first person by a conservator — so remarkable, refreshing, and visionary.
The Painted King tells the fascinating story of how a conservator and local community together determined and carried out the conservation of a monumental bronze sculpture of the first king of Hawai’i, Kamehameha, located in a town on the island of Hawai’i. Outdoors since its casting in the mid-19th century, a survivor of shipwreck, and bearing over twenty campaigns of paint, the sculpture had its fair share of condition issues when Glenn Wharton, the author of the book, first examined it. In addition, it carried powerful significance for the local community; the many layers of paint gave testimony to this.
One should read the book for oneself — it’s engaging and thought-provoking — but I’d like to share some general comments. First, you may think me strange, but I see The Painted King, and particularly the personal voice with which Wharton has decided to share the story with others, as a kind of counter-balance or alternative approach to objective styles of documentation, now the norm. (I refer to photos, detailed lists of components and measurements, annotated illustrations, installation instructions, etc.) Of course, the latter have their important place — the treatment of the Kamehameha sculpture incorporated all of these plus many modes of scientific analysis — but a first-person narrative by a conservator is perhaps akin to an artist interview. At a period where the artistic process is expanding, and conservators and museums are increasingly implicated as collaborators in that process, a more holistic look at conservators’ intent is arguably well-founded.
Wharton, who now is time-based media conservator at MoMA and on faculty at NYU’s Department of Museum Studies, recently launched the book with a noticeably cross-disciplinary crowd that included conservators, curators, sociologists, and others. Speaking in a befitting Hawai’ian shirt rendered in New York City’s signature black and grey, Wharton opened by saying that the events recounted in his book had been pivotal and life-changing for him. Behind the podium was the Hawai’ian state flag that had for years hung from the courthouse that shared the square with the Kamehameha monument — a gift from the Kohala community to Wharton. Clearly, the community had been profoundly affected by Wharton’s presence and participation as well.
There are some who will sniff at the idea of a conservation treatment decided by democracy. But it doesn’t take a genius to see that there are many kinds of art in our world, and many more ways in which we — as individuals, as communities, as stakeholders — relate to the art around us. One effect of the treatment of the Kamehameha monument is empowerment of community. And in writingThe Painted King, Wharton shows us, the conservation community, what is possible.
I’m keen for more writing from Wharton, and in the immediate future, I’m looking forward to AIC’s annual meeting in May, which is focused on outreach and advocacy. Wharton will be on a panel discussion on artist interviews. I hope to meet some of you there.