Since 1975, the Department has applied all the technical means and conservation criteria at its disposal to the new demands of museums and played an active role in the evolution of the Museum. The principal objective of the Department is to conserve those works of art comprising the Museum's own Collection as well as all other works of art or objects of cultural interest kept in Museum installations. The Department plays a fundamental role in gleaning scientific knowledge regarding works of art and in divulging this same information to both the general public and the scientific community.
The aim of preventive conservation is to avoid any damage being caused to works of art. This materialises in a series of indirect steps:
Conservation treatments or, as they are referred to nowadays, curative conservation treatments, suppose works of art being subjected to direct actions and are only applied when a particular work of art is found to be in a state of deterioration. These treatments concern, for example, the consolidation of materials and their structural and chemical stabilisation. Those restoration interventions which normally imply a change in the aspect of a work of art are applied to restore or permit the appreciation of works without changing their significance. Though this work has always traditionally been associated with conservationists/restorers, new museum needs, however, have given rise to new conservation and research measures. Given the variety of the works of art that make up the Collections of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, we had to develop an interdisciplinary way of working, something which led to the increasing collaboration and exchange of specialists from several different public institutions, such as the Institute for the Cultural Heritage of Spain, the Senior Council for Scientific Research and the Prado National Museum.
The idea is to inform people about the works in the Museum collection and the artists who produced them. Documentary research and scientific analysis provide accurate information on the media and techniques used in each work. Ultraviolet light reveals data about the surface of the work, infrared reflectography accesses the deeper layers of paint. X-rays provide information on structural and construction features, and stratigraphic analysis gives further details about the paints and primers used. These techniques are often associated with chemical analysis into the exact makeup of pigments, charger materials, binders and varnishes. Fabrics used in the canvas, the wood used for the support and sculptural materials are likewise all studied.
All this information, often compiled by a number of specialists working in different areas, is put together and contrasted using scientific criteria in the Department of Conservation & Restoration. This facilitates accurate assessment of the state of conservation of the work in question, a diagnosis of potential pathologies and decisions on the most suitable treatments. But this way we can also identify the artist’s specific working methods and even the underlying stylistic and conceptual tenets of the artist’s oeuvre. These working techniques and methodologies provide remarkably rich seams of information that enable more accurate dating of works in a period of history or even the career of an artist. They are, in short, essential for the study of, or intervention on, any cultural asset.
In 2013, Iberdrola began to contribute to the Museum’s annual conservation and restoration programme. Under the agreement, the company provides an annual renewable amount of €75,000, which enables the Museum to treat a selection of art works in the collection, thus underwriting part of the Museum Conservation & Restoration Department’s mission.