The Forbes Prize Lecture, 1996 Copenhagen Congress

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Conservator Anna Rosenqvist treating an animal head post from the Oseberg find. Courtesy of KHM, UiO. License through CC 4.0 BY-SA.

Delivered by Andrew Oddy

This version of the lecture reproduces excerpts of the printed text from IIC Bulletin No. 5, October 1996, pp 1-5 with minor corrections and the addition of illustrations.

It goes without saying that it is an honour and a privilege to be invited to deliver the Forbes Prize lecture. It is, however, a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it means that the Council of IIC thinks that I might have something interesting to say, but on the other, it usually means that the lecturer is near the end of his or her career and, in my case, I am under the impression that I have another five years to serve!

In years gone by, the Forbes lecturer could say anything; there was no theme and no guidelines, only a hope that the lecture would be interesting. In my time, I have had the privilege of listening to five very different orations, of which I remember with particular pleasure that by Lars Barkman in 1975 - probably because the subject was waterlogged wood and, at that time, I was involved with the preservation of a medieval wooden boat. Sadly, I was not present at Oxford in 1978 to hear the only female Forbes lecturer, Caroline Keck. Would the Council please note that it is high time we had more women on the rostrum for this occasion?

Nowadays, however, the Forbes lecture has changed. It has been moved to the beginning of the biennial conference and is supposed to reflect the theme of the meeting, in this case archaeology.

Two possible themes for the lecture immediately spring to mind: my thirty years as a conservation scientist in the British Museum for one, and a review of worldwide developments in archaeological conservation in the last ten, twenty or thirty years for the other. As far as a review goes, you do not need me to compose one for you as most conservators these days are the product of conservation training courses and will, or should, have learnt the latest methods as well as something of the history of the subject as part of their syllabus.

So what about my life in conservation at the British Museum? Well, I can assure you that much of it has been enjoyable and interesting, and I feel proud at having been employed at one of the greatest of international museums. But I am not sure that I could entertain you for the next forty minutes, as my prowess as a raconteur has never been well developed. I have, however, worked with some of the most scholarly curators and had access to an unparalleled collection so that, as well as working as a conservation scientist on waterlogged wood, salty stone and corroding metals, I have been able to indulge my interest in ancient technology with research on gilding, tinning, niello, wire-making and debasement studies on gold coins.

But all this you can read about in the specialist literature. More interesting are the personal contacts. Of these, the most precious has been more than a passing acquaintance with that all-time great, Harold Plenderleith, who is still going strong and will be 98 years old on 19 September. Among the stars of archaeological conservation of the generation before me, I met Rutherford Gettens of the USA, Robert Organ, originally of the British Museum, but who migrated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, Lars Barkman from Sweden, Brorson Christensen from Denmark, Anna Rosenqvist from Norway, and the indefatigable Hanna Jedrzejewska from Poland, who I last met at an ICOM meeting last year when she had just entered her ninetieth year. There are, of course, many others of that pioneering generation who established objects conservation as a science and a philosophy in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. To Tony Werner I owe a special debt of gratitude for appointing me to the British Museum and to Robert Organ a big 'thank-you' for emigrating to the USA via Canada and, thus, creating a vacancy at the British Museum for me to fill. Of all the advice that I have had from these and others, I remember and practise a tip from Tony Werner, who said that whenever travelling abroad, it was essential to buy a bottle of Scotch at the airport and drink a generous measure at bedtime. This has the dual effect of making you feel good and of disinfecting the stomach in case the local water comes from a fishpond rather than a reservoir. Well, Tony, I have followed your advice religiously and the only place that I have succumbed to the indigenous microbes is in that temple to efficiency and cleanliness, Berlin.

In thinking of Harold Plenderleith, I am reminded that in his youth he met the elderly Gustav Rosenberg from the National Museum in Copenhagen, who was one of a very small band of late nineteenth-century pioneers of archaeological conservation which included the legendary Friedrich Rathgen who wrote the first truly scientific book on archaeological conservation. If only these pioneers had written their memoirs, how much richer would our history be, and if they had been frank and revealing about their associates, how much more interesting.

. . . . . .

The Forbes lecture is named after Edward Waldo Forbes, who was born in 1873 and died in 1969, and who is credited with laying the foundations of scientific conservation in the USA. He became director of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard in 1909 and retired in 1944; during this period he enormously enriched the collections of paintings and antiquities by his own generosity and by 'twisting the arm' of friends and acquaintances. In 1971, the Fogg Art Museum held an exhibition to commemorate Forbes' life's work, and one-third of the catalogue is devoted to Edward Waldo Forbes: Herald of Conservation. What an apt title. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines 'herald' with three meanings, and the one of interest to us is 'a forerunner' or 'precursor'. He had the vision, when director of the Fogg Art Museum, to realise that the embryonic science of conservation then being practised at the museums in Berlin and Copenhagen should be the basis for the future care of antiquities and works of art. The result was the recruitment of a radiologist called Alan Burroughs and a chemist called Rutherford John Gettens. The latter worked at the Fogg from 1933 to 1952 (with a break for war service) and then went off to the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian, where his work on, among many other topics, Chinese bronzes is justly famous.

Apart from creating the right atmosphere for scientists to lay the basis for the "new conservation", Forbes was instrumental in founding the journal Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts, which was published between 1932 and 1942 and was itself the herald of Studies in Conservation, which began publication in 1952 and is still going strong. Of course, you all know that Studies is the journal of IIC and Forbes was member No 16 of our august institution.

Edward Waldo Forbes died three years after I joined the British Museum but I never had the privilege of meeting him. We do, however, have one thing in common: we both attended the same Oxford college, though his matriculation in 1900 preceded mine by 61 years! It, therefore, gives me particular pleasure to have been invited to deliver this Forbes Prize lecture.

 

(Read the article and see all the historical images in the December-January 2021 "News in Conservation" Issue 81, p. 18-21)

 

 

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It goes without saying that it is an honour and a privilege to be invited to deliver the Forbes Prize lecture. It is, however, a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it means that the Council of IIC thinks that I might have something interesting to say, but on the other, it usually means that the lecturer is near the end of his or her career and, in my case, I am under the impression that I have another five years to serve!
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