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"The art object as a document"
 Written by Lizzeth Armenta

Translated by María Ritter Miravete
Lizzeth Armenta

Lizzeth Armenta is an assistant technician in museography and restoration from the ENP (National Preparatory School) of UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico). She has a bachelor’s degree in restoration from ENCRyM (National School of Conservation, Restoration and Museography) INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History), and a master's degree in art studies from the Iberoamerican University. She has worked professionally as a conservator and restorer at El Carmen museum, at the MNH (National Museum of History) "Castillo de Chapultepec" and at the MNA (National Museum of Anthropology). She currently directs the site museum of the San Ignacio de Loyola Vizcaínas School.

Her object of study has focused on the conservation and museum documentation of historic textile heritage.

When a researcher directs the focus of their studies towards “works of art” they will find an extraordinary and broad panorama, full of possibilities given the multiple perspectives from which these objects can be approached: material, technological, social, symbolic, economic, utilitarian, just to mention a few. As sources of information, they will count on books, documents, archives, and even the object itself, but they will have to consider that most of the artworks that are still tangible have been damaged by the pass of time and by the conditions of the sites they were found on throughout the different historicities they have gone through, as well as the current conditions in which they are kept.  Due to this, the enthusiastic researcher will rarely be able to physically access the objects that they are studying, since the direct consultation of the object implies a continuous detriment in its state of conservation.

According to E.H. Gombrich in his book History of Art, the scholar must situate the pieces within their corresponding historical framework, know the life and world of the artist who created them, their social condition and their procedure, to lead thus to the understanding of the artistic purposes, since each work expresses a message not only for what it contains but for what it ceases to contain. An artwork seems distant when it is exhibited in a museum, it is forbidden to touch it, but one must think that it was an object made to be handled, bought, admitted or rejected, while others were not conceived to be enjoyed artistically, but for a certain occasion with a definite purpose.[1]

Thus, social anthropology of art offers another route to understand the object, placing its creation in a specific historical framework, approaching the life and context of the people who produced it, being able to understand all the information that is found explicitly in the piece and the information that we must interpret: what we cannot see with the naked eye. That is to say, the scholar will have to formulate the questions that allow them to interrogate the artworks and will have to possess the tools to obtain the answers they are looking for, in this way they will be able to gather data that as a whole that will shed light on the object.

To cite an example. Between 2016 and 2017, the ENCRyM[2] Textile Conservation and Restoration Workshop Seminar conducted a comprehensive study of the piece "Rebozo" from the Vizcainas Museum collection, necessary to proceed with its restoration. The identification of fibers was achieved by their observation in an optical microscope, concluding that it was cotton fibers in the weft and silk in the warp, as well as metallic lamellae in the twine. Reagents and pH measurements were used to determine the dyes and colorants present in the threads, which when reacted, indicated the presence of tannins and ferrous oxides, mainly in the black color[3]

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Sampling for laboratory analysis. By Águeda Delgado.

These data allowed the generation of a hypothesis regarding the dating of the piece, as it corresponds to the characteristics of the workmanship used in New Spain between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. Regarding the geographical origin of the “Rebozo”, it is inferred that it was made in Tenancingo, State of Mexico, because of the technique with which the threads were dyed black, very characteristic of this site, or in Tolimán, Querétaro, due to the silk warp and hand-spun cotton weft with which it was made.

Back to the topic at hand, Michel de Certeau, a 20th century French thinker,[4] argues that in order to write and read about the ordinary culture of the people who were in contact with that object, it is necessary to relearn common operations and make of its analysis a variant in the inquiry. The author defines the description of some daily practices as a tactic since they are considered significant: talking, walking, living, cooking, etc. The operative performance of these practices is a sign of very ancient knowledge and from the representations and "objects" are produced that will have the form of an imprint in a technocratically constructed and functionalist space. It will then be possible and necessary at the same time, to identify the use of these objects by the groups and individuals that coexist with them in different trajectories.

English historian Peter Burke[5], proposes to broaden interests, to include not only political events, economic trends and social structures to approach objects, but also the history of mentality, daily life, material culture, and the body. Research in these relatively new fields cannot be limited to traditional sources such as official documents preserved in archives. For this reason, different types of documentation are increasingly used, including literary texts, oral testimonies, images and the objects themselves.

Returning to the study carried out for the restoration of the "Rebozo". Although, hard data was obtained in the scientific laboratory that through processing allowed to access unknown information, the researcher can go further, approaching places like Tenancingo or Tolimán, where the tradition of rebozos/shawls, the manufacture technique and the use of materials has remained for generations, in which they can learn how the practice of making rebozos/shawls has been transformed since the late eighteenth century up until now.

Michel de Certeau and Peter Burke yield visibility to the use of various types of documentation as a research resource for historians. Burke mentions the distinguished medievalist David Douglas who claimed that nearly half a century ago the Bayeux Tapestry was "a primary source for the history of England." Burke also cites Jacob Burckhardt, a Renaissance scholar who described images, monuments, and objects as testimonies of the earlier phases of the development of the human spirit through which we can read the structures of thought and representation of each epoch.[6]

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Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry. By Getty Images®


Burke also mentions that traditionally, historians have called their documents "sources", but presents the proposal of the historian Gustaaf Renier on the convenience of replacing the idea of sources with "vestiges" of the past in the present, a term that would allow designating manuscripts, printed books, buildings, furniture, paintings, sculptures, engravings, photographs and prints.[7] These goods allow posterity to share the experiences and non-verbal knowledge of past cultures.[8]

These objects, regarded as sources, vestiges or documents, are silent witnesses and it is difficult to translate the testimony they offer into words. They may have been intended to communicate their message, but it is not uncommon for researchers to ignore them to read between the lines and interpret what the creator did not know was saying. The selection of any of the sources implies caution, as with the use of any other type of source, as it could lead to misinterpretations of context, function, rhetoric and quality of the memory.[9]

Burke wonders to what extent the sources mentioned in previous paragraphs can serve as a reliable testimony of the past. From the speaker’s perspective, trained as a restorer of movable cultural heritage, who considers that with the application of diverse methodologies of analysis used to identify constituent materials, manufacture techniques and ornamentation, it is possible to generate reliable information on the pieces or objects that are studied, and with scientific objectivity allow the construction of historical contexts with greater support.

For example, M.Sc. Ingrid Karina Jiménez Cosme applied archaeometry analyzes to the investigation of goldsmith production associated with viceregal textiles, obtaining precise data on the composition of the metal alloys present in the objects of her study, so the premise is fully confirmed: the object is a document that contains the information that can be interpreted. The possibility of analyzing the object from its materiality and technology represents an essential tool for data collection that contributes in reaching the interpretation and significance of each piece as a document, adding to the construction of material culture.[10]

It is then possible to glimpse and understand the importance of museum documentation methods, where the object is a source of information, since it is in these processes that the data obtained and derived from the application of a systematic model that allows the collection of images, technical information, anthropological interpretation, state of conservation and archive of the piece can be registered: who and what has been written about it, in which source can this information be consulted, if it has participated in external exhibitions, how its appraisals have changed over time, etc. There is the possibility of enriching the knowledge of materials and technology by performing specific analysis and laboratory techniques to generate data based on scientific objectivity.

Bruno Latour mentions the dangers of non-reflective acceptance of variables. He poses the following question: does a discipline that leaves aside the precise information offered by fieldwork and replaces it with instances of other factors that are invisible, and those things that people have not said and have emphatically denied, qualify as scientific? It is necessary to reflect on the objectivity with which the information generated by analysis applied to the pieces under study is interpreted and also to reflect on the perspectives from which the artwork can be approached by the interested parties since all these points of view must have the same level of recognition and validity.[11]

The problems faced by historians when conducting research considering images as documentary sources, is that they directly involve the intention of the artist, whether he tried to faithfully represent the visible world or if he intended to idealize or allegorize it. For this reason, the physical consultation of historical specimens will be an unavoidable resource, from which hypotheses can be verified or denied.

When the artist is no longer on this earthly plane it is not possible to ponder about their intentions or the procedures with which they executed their work; we only have research methodologies to obtain information, which can be interpreted and documented to increase the knowledge that we possess about the object. However, in case the artist is still alive, they may or may not explain the objectives of their creation: permanence, materiality, installation, perception and conservation of the same.

A case study to exemplify this is the work "Los olvidados" by Carlos Aguirre, which was housed in the collection of the Carrillo Gil Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City. The piece is about the construction of the face of a worker wearing a protective helmet, using leather gloves of various shades collected after their discard due to wear and tear. In this scenario, the author stated that his work was conceived as an ephemeral installation and did not think that it should have been preserved and stored in a collection deposit, so he did not ponder that the nails and metal staples used to join the gloves would imply a material problem that would remain over time.[12]

Captura de Pantalla 2020-11-19 a la(s) 1

“Los olvidados” by Carlos Aguirre. By the Seminar of Conservation of Modern and Contemporary Art of ENCRyM.

Perhaps in the specific case of this object, it was sought to generate an aesthetic experience derived from the spectator's encounter with the installation, a fleeting moment that may or may not be documented as an annex to the lifeline of this piece. It is then that we can finally reflect: How many pieces that remain in museums, galleries or warehouses were conceived as such, as works of art? Which specialist has the ideal profile to select the “correct” study methodologies to question and listen to the answers that the objects emit? Does the researcher’s background play a role when interpreting the data? What sources can be considered reliable according to their accuracy or misguided study perspective? It will be interesting to listen to the voices of the various disciplines involved in this topic.

[1] Ernst H. J Gombrich, La historia del arte, trad. Rafael Santos Torroella, (Reino Unido: Phaidon, Reino Unido, 1997), 7-37.

[2] Escuela Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museografía del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia de México.

[3] Aceves Valencia, María Fernanda. et. al., Rebozo del Colegio de San Ignacio de Loyola Vizcaínas. Ciudad de México. Informe de los trabajos de restauración y conservación realizados en el Seminario Taller de Conservación y Restauración de Textiles. México: INAH- ENCRyM, 2016.

[4] Michel de Certeau, La invención de lo cotidiano. 1 Artes de hacer, trad. Alejandro Pescador, (México: Universidad Iberoamericana, 2000), 41-54.

[5] Peter Burke, Visto y no visto. El uso de la imagen como documento histórico, trad. Teófilo de Lozoya (España: Ed. Crítica, 2005), 11.

[6] Burke op. cit.13.

[7] Ibídem, 16.

[8] Ídem

[9] Ibídem, 18.

[10] Ingrid Karina Jiménez Cosme, “Producción orfebre en vestimenta litúrgica virreinal, caracterización de técnicas materiales de los textiles de la Catedral de México en el Museo Nacional del Virreinato” (Tesis de maestría en Estudios arqueológicos, Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México, 2013), 1-25 / 314-315. 

[11] Bruno Latour, Reensamblar lo social. Una introducción a la teoría del actor –red (Argentina: Manantial, 2008), 78.

[12] Tania Estrada Valadez, et. al., Los olvidados, la historia de un concepto que se hizo materia, Memorias del 4to Foro académico de la ENCRyM – INAH. 2011.

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