In the shadow of the workshop: the restorer's job

Strolling through the corridors of the museum, it is hard to imagine the many professions that ensure its daily functioning. This is particularly the case for the restorers whose mission, however essential, is to ensure that the collections are in good condition and to prepare them for exhibition. For the time of an article, Christophe and Audrey invite you to pass through the door of their workshop and discover a little more about this work, usually carried out behind closed doors.

Restoring is neither inventing nor adapting the work in order to make it correspond to certain criteria of beauty. It is about making a precise diagnosis that will guide the type of treatment to be carried out. To do this, the eye is our first tool, says Audrey Jeghers, a specialist in the restoration of paintings, or rather "conservation - restauration″ as people in the profession now call it because of the different types of work to be carried out.

While conservation will not take into account the aesthetic aspect of the work, but rather will try to prevent damage and repair it, restoration will be more concerned with its final result.

The Museum "Experts"

At this point, you are entitled to ask yourself, "What does this mean in practice? ». To answer this question, Christophe Remacle, who also specialises in the restoration of paintings, kindly opened the doors of the workshop and took the time to explain everything to us. Because as he reminds us: restoring is only part of our job.

  • It starts with a request from a curator or an exhibition manager: when the latter chooses the pieces to be exhibited, the restorers go to the storage room to make an initial observation of the work and estimate the scale of the task to be carried out. According to their opinion and the time limits set, it may be decided to carry out the work in-house or to tender an external restorer.
  • The actual restoration work can then begin. When restoring a painting, the old layers of oxidized varnish, which have turned yellow over time, are often removed. Why is this so important? Because the oxidized varnish will reduce the different layers present on the painting to a single one, thus reducing its depth and disturbing its legibility. By restoring the painting to its original appearance, restorers help to make it more understandable. They also work with art historians who will be able to study the works with fresh eyes and make possible discoveries that will make the history of the painting much richer. Other important steps follow, such as repairing tears in the canvas or gluing the joints of a panel to finish by filling in and retouching the gaps.
  • Whatever the final goal, conservators must be patient and meticulous during the restoration process: proceeding cautiously, step by step, remains essential to avoid making irreversible changes to the object. Knowing one's limits is just as important: there are so many materials to work with, each with its own specificities... it is sometimes better to recognize that this is beyond our abilities and to entrust to others restorers materials we are not used to working with, stresses Christophe.
  • But once the work is ready to be exhibited, the job is not finished! In the context of loans of objects between museums, the restorers must ensure that they are shipped in the best conditions and be present at the installation and dismantling venues so as to be able to draw up condition reports at each stage of preparation, from crating to hanging within the exhibition.

The restorer's job, a whole art... but not only !

Whether it is a question of knowing the properties of the different solvents required to remove the varnish from the painting or of ensuring that the works are maintained in optimal conservation conditions, the practice of restoration mobilises as much scientific knowledge as it does artistic knowledge.

In the prospect of unveiling the different facets of her profession, Audrey temporarily moved in 2019 to a space usually dedicated to the museum's collections in order to restore the painting "The Exodus of Jacob" by Cornelis Buys. In addition to allowing visitors who wished to watch her work, this real first at the Grand Curtius was accompanied by a series of open workshops during which the public was invited to exchange with Audrey while receiving explanations on the products and techniques used during the different phases of the restoration. Did we miss you? Don't hesitate to consult the course of events here.


In summary
  1. Preventive conservation aims to anticipate the causes of deterioration of a heritage object by acting on its environment (ensuring a stable climate or the use of appropriate lighting).

  2. In the event of deterioration, curative conservation aims to treat its effects and stop its evolution, in particular by consolidating or repairing weakened materials.

  3. Restoration includes all operations that are not essential to the survival of the object but which allow it to be enhanced and its legibility to be improved (e.g. filling in and retouching gaps).