"We’re lucky that conservation has progressed from this stage to become something that’s much more gentle and sensitive to the object in question."
Johanna Puisto, Sculpture Conservator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
Arts Exchange – From Helsinki to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A): Conservation as a world-wide profession
Johanna Puisto is originally from Finland. For over a decade she has worked as a Sculpture Conservator at the V&A where she’s currently involved in the renovation of the famous Cast Courts. Designed by General Henry Scott, and first opened in 1873, the Cast Courts are among the most popular galleries in the V&A. Johanna spoke to British Council Finland about a rather fascinating profession.
You’re a trained conservator. Did you train in Finland or the UK?
I trained in both Finland and the UK. I began by attending the Helsinki Upper School of Visual Arts (Torkkelin Kuvataide Lukio), a three-year course at Helsinki Vocational School of Decorative Painting (Helsingin Maalari Ammatti Koulu) and a gilding course at Lahti Institute of Design (Lahden Muotoilu Instituutti). Later, to progress my studies, I went on to earn my Batchelor’s degree in the UK where I studied conservation and restoration at De Montfort University, in Lincoln.
Why did you want to train at these respective places?
Many of my family members are either artists or they work in the creative industries, so I was naturally drawn to the cultural sector. At Helsinki Vocational School of Decorative Painting, where I gained what’s known as a ‘Journeyman’s’ qualification, I developed my skills in the applied arts. It was there that I started to learn traditional techniques to restore furniture and architectural details – for instance, how to reinstate original decorative schemes and cultivate an ability with decorative paint effects, such as marbling and wood graining.
It was while working on interiors that I developed an interest in the conservation of gilded surfaces, and led me to embark on the gilding course at Lahti. However, when I wanted to take my studies a little further, I found that Finland didn’t necessarily offer the right course for me. British Council in Helsinki helped me choose a suitable course in the UK. I ended up choosing the BA (Hons) in Conservation and Restoration in the School of Applied Arts and Design at De Montfort University in Lincoln. What was attractive was that it covered a range of materials, from gilded surfaces to ceramics, and from wood and metals to ethnographic artefacts. The course also covered theory of conservation, technical drawing, art history and museology. I then was lucky enough to go on to gain valuable hands-on experience through my work placement at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter. While there I worked on their collection of materials related to the explorer, Captain Cook. But for my thesis I decided to investigate something more closely related to my homeland. That is, the material culture of the indigenous Sámi in relation to museum collecting, and for which I carried out a pioneering survey of Sámi collections in the UK.
Has conservation changed since you started out in the profession?
Because we are always seeking innovative ways to preserve objects, new materials and treatment methods are continuously being developed, which is fantastic. When I look at treatment reports that date back to the 1960s and 1970s I am often startled at how treating objects was seen as something that needed to be interventive. We’re lucky that conservation has progressed from this stage to become something that’s much more gentle and sensitive to the object in question. In terms of documentation, we’ve also made great strides as a profession. And of course, digital photography has made a huge difference to how we work.
When did you start working at the V&A?
After many years working freelance in private conservation practices, I joined the V&A in 2005. I had been building my experience in conservation projects in a variety of prestigious buildings across England and Scotland. I was also involved conserving monuments and sculptures, including the restoration of Hereford Chancel Screen which is part of the V&A’s collection. This, and the unsurpassable, world class collection, inspired me to apply for a job.
Today, I am responsible for the care and conservation of objects from the Museum’s collection of sculpture, which consist of about 22 000 objects. They range from about the 3rd century AD to the present day and include minute ivory carvings to architectural structures on a monumental scale. The materials range from wood, plaster, ivory, stone, terracotta to amber and rock crystal. Many of the objects have painted surfaces. My main duties involve the examination and assessment of objects in order to understand their structure and determine their condition, and the choosing of a suitable approach for treatment so as to ensure their long-term preservation. I am also responsible for sculpture objects which are on long-term loan to or from the museum.
A major project that I am involved with is the Cast Courts project. The Courts are two large, three-stories-high galleries which were built in the 1870’s. They house an extensive collection of 19th century plaster casts of post-classical European sculptures. The Cast Courts were originally called Architectural Courts and they were aimed to show copies of sculptures and architectural details at a time when travelling was a luxury. As part of the project, I have had the wonderful opportunity to conserve and study the colossal cast of Michelangelo’s David. This reaches over five meters in height and is a highlight of the collection. The cast was originally a gift to Her Majesty Queen Victoria from the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1857. My colleagues and I are gathering information about their structure and construction and conserving the casts to ensure their long-term preservation. I will soon be focussing on medieval church crosses, which I am very excited to be involved with. We have casts of Scandinavian origin although I’ve not come across any Finnish casts.
Tell us about some of the discoveries you’ve made?
The ‘David project’ has developed in different directions. Conservation included analysis of the surface, to understand its treatment history, as well as X-ray to examine its stability. The history of this cast, and countless other copies throughout the world, is a very interesting story. I have been in contact with many curators, cast makers and artists to discover more. The whole process has resulted in a series of guest posts contributing to the blog I have been writing. The posts cover topics ranging from scanning the V&A David for Ridley Scott’s film Alien: Covenant to sketching David’s nose using an academic drawing technique.
Are there cast courts in Finland?
The Department of Art History at the University of Helsinki has a collection of casts of classical and renaissance sculptures. The collection dates back to 1873, which coincidentally is the same year when the V&A Cast Courts were first opened. Another significant plaster cast collection, some casts of which are by the artist Eemil Halonen, is housed at Eemil Halonen Museum in Finland.
Is there an international network of conservators that you are part of?
Over the years, and from my work in the UK and in Finland – not to mention other places - I have built up a large network of friends who work in museums and private practices. For any Finnish museum professional it’s helpful to know that there are also a number of formal networks such as ICON (The Institute of Conservation), IIC (Intentional Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works) and AIC (American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works). The institutions provide advocacy, professional standards and opportunities for professional development.
For a new visitor to the UK with an interest in sculpture or conservation, what should they see?
I would certainly recommend visiting the V&A Cast Courts just to see the plaster cast of Michelangelo’s David. The cast is a superb example of great craftmanship and a work of art in its own right. One of the most delightful things about it is that it’s easy to get close to and observe from a very short distance. For people like me who have never actually seen the real David (it is displayed at the Accademia Gallery in Florence) the V&A cast is the closest you can get to Michelangelo’s original. After all, the mould for the cast was taken directly from the original statue.