The evolving practice of antiquities conservation is the focus of The Hope Hygieia: Restoring a Statue’s History, a new exhibition on view through September 8, 2008 at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa.
The Hope Hygieia, a seven-foot-tall, nearly one-ton marble statue of Hygieia, the goddess of health, is on loan to the J. Paul Getty Museum from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). It was found in 1797 at Ostia, the ancient port of Rome. Since its discovery, the statue has been restored, de-restored, and now re-restored, to bring it full circle.
Discovered 10 meters underground, the statue was missing its nose, inlaid eyes, right forearm, and left hand, as well as parts of the drapery and sections of the snake the figure is holding, including its head. At the time of its discovery, there was no question that the missing elements would be restored with marble replacement parts designed to look just like the restorer imagined the original sculpture might have looked. These initial restorations took place in the 19th century.
Once the statue was restored, it was acquired by the English designer Thomas Hope. The Hygieia appeared whole, its 19th-century restorations essentially untouched, for the next 170 years as the statue passed from Hope to the industrialist Alfred Mond, to newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. In 1950, Hearst donated the statue to LACMA.
The Hope Hygieia underwent a transformation in 1973 when LACMA lent the statue to the J. Paul Getty Museum for exhibition and de-restoration. In accord with a minimalist aesthetic, the statue was stripped of its 19th-century additions.
"Starting in the 20th century, conservators and archaeologists began to reject previous restorations, and many sculptures were stripped of their additions,” explains Jens Daehner, curator of the exhibition and assistant curator, Department of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum. “This attitude influenced the work done by the Getty on the Hope Hygeia in the 1970s when its restorations were removed.”
Consequently, at that time, everything was removed from the Hope Hygeia that was not ancient marble. The desired authenticity, however, was compromised by the absence of naturally broken surfaces: when the statue was restored in the 19th century, the restorer had cut away the broken parts, leaving smooth surfaces that looked like intentional amputations.
For these and other reasons, new generations of conservators have come to believe that once an ancient sculpture is restored, its original state is lost forever, and the restorations become an intrinsic part of the object’s history. In 2006, at the request of LACMA, Getty conservators reversed the de-restoration done by earlier conservators, reconstructing the Hygieia to its 19th-century appearance with the goal of restoring it to the way it looked when it was owned by Hope.
“The early restorations had some historical accuracy,” says Jerry Podany, senior conservator of antiquities for the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Fortunately, many of the segments that were removed in the 1970s had been preserved, and could be reattached.” Restorations that were lost or damaged since the 1970s were re-created based on drawings and photographs.
“Objects from antiquity don’t have a static history,” adds Erik Risser, assistant conservator of antiquities for the J. Paul Getty Museum, who completed the re-restoration. “This is simultaneously an ancient statue and a reflection of 18th- and 19th-century attitudes toward antiquities.”
Relying on mechanical joints and soluble adhesives, Risser made certain that his new assembly of ancient and modern elements is fully reversible. Current conservation practice does not entirely reject restoration if it is historically accurate and provides the object some structural integrity—as long as it can be easily undone by conservators in the future.
“The point of this exhibition is to highlight the changing attitudes within the conservation profession and the different ways this particular object has been seen, understood, and interpreted since it was discovered some 200 years ago,” continues Daehner.
In addition to the Hope Hygieia statue, the exhibition features a 19th-century drawing of the figure soon after its initial restoration, and an engraving of Hygieia in a book on ancient costume by Thomas Hope, both from the Getty Research Institute’s collection, as well as a marble head of Hygieia from the J. Paul Getty Museum’s collection.
Following its exhibition at the Getty Villa, the statue will be returned to LACMA, where it will be featured in an exhibition titled Hearst the Collector, beginning November 2008. “The Hope Hygieia is the most important example of its type. The Getty’s contribution to rehabilitating this historic work of art is an ideal example of collaboration between museums. The restoration would not have happened without the support and approval of Michael Brand1 and Karol Wight2,” commented Mary Levkoff, curator of European sculpture and classical antiquities at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.