When is Life Worth Saving? A Discussion on Art Conservation Leads to Difficult Questions in Medicine and End of Life Care

Dressed in bright colors with hair to match, Ms. Noelle Ocon, associate conservator of paintings at the North Carolina Museum of Art, was an easy guide to follow as she led the Huang Fellows through the chilly hallways of the museum’s basement. She explained that the paintings had to be kept at a very specific temperature, as she stopped in front of an imposing steel gate, like a giant garage door. Any warmer and “catastrophe” would occur. We could hear the sound of motors whirring as the heavy door began to lift.

Inside was a studio workshop paradise of sorts, with high ceilings, natural light, and art materials piled on every surface. Noelle has been working here for the past twenty years alongside her conservator colleagues, using the latest in science to analyze, document, preserve, and ultimately restore the museum’s damaged and aging works of art.

The 2017 Class of Huang Fellows visit the North Carolina Museum of Art as part of their summer immersion program.

We sat down in front of easels showcasing several richly-colored oil paintings; before-and-after photographs made it clear that the works had been carefully retouched. Noelle described how important it was to return the painting to—in most cases—its original state, without the cracks, chips, and modifications accumulated over the centuries.

By adapting advancements in other fields of science, like chemistry, physics, and medicine, to their own, conservators are now able to verify specific color pigments, identify a later addition or overpainting, and even see the artist’s original sketch work. Conservators use all this information to decide how best to move forward with a piece. Noelle stressed that all their work needed to be reversible, to maintain the artistic integrity of the creator.

“They are using new technology to preserve the old,” reflected fellow Fellow Claudia LaRose, noting as many did the bridge this work created between modern science and the ancient arts.

Indeed, we listened to Noelle expound upon infrared reflectography, x-radiography, and chemical varnishes before she picked up a paintbrush and delicately dabbed synthetic vermillion onto the aged canvas with equal deftness. After years of “Please Do Not Touch,” I was amazed to see her actually alter the 400-year-old painting displaying before us, a right reserved for 17th century Dutch artists and, apparently, expert conservators like her. I found it easy to compare Noelle and her colleagues to the Renaissance men whose work they helped preserve.

“I liked seeing all the different sciences [Noelle] brought together because I think a lot of people think that ‘Oh, physics is only physics, and biology is only biology,’” commented Huang Fellow Victoria Grant. “But, she was taking all these different fields and combining them. She has to be a chemist, a physicist, and she has to know [...] medical technology.”

Speaking together with William Brown, chief conservator at the museum, Noelle also cited collaborations between the North Carolina Museum of Art and Ingrid Daubechies, professor of mathematics at Duke, as examples of big developments made through interdisciplinary work.

A jar of synthetic saliva is used to mimic ancient techniques that artists used to manipulate paintings.

Noelle holds an M.A. and Certificate of Advanced Studies in Conservation from the State University College of Buffalo, at the time one of only three conservation programs in the country, for which she needed a unique background in art history, chemistry, and studio art.

For us, it was interesting to see art conservation as another role science had to play in society. Few realized how much science went into the perfect pictures that hung from the museum walls.

Science and technology gives new insight into the order and process behind creation, which is important to study in order to better understand art.

“We should appreciate the process and the work behind the restoration of paintings and the implementation of science to do that, instead of just appreciating what’s on the surface,” said Huang Fellow Brian Rhee. “Science and technology gives new insight into the order and process behind creation, which is important to study in order to better understand art.”

Many of us still had questions as we ended the tour back outside in the muggy Carolina heat. When did the inevitable markers of time on a work of art become a historical artifact of the art itself, rather than blemishes to be removed? Where did conservators draw the line between a supposedly non-intrusive retouching and an intrusive overpainting?

Huang Fellow Jake Wong was struck by a nearly shattered work of art that Noelle said had been doomed to the backroom, likely never to be restored.

“She said she could save the piece of art but it was not worth saving, because it’s not a Rembrandt. It’s a no one artist,” said Jake.

When Is Life Worth Saving?

“It reminded me of when Barfield came and said ‘We have the technology to save this patient, but the new question now is whether the patient is worth saving,’” Jake continued, referencing a seminar Dr. Raymond Barfield, a faculty at both Duke’s Medical School and Divinity School, gave about medical ethics and his work in comfort care.

Of course, the values a doctor must consider are not about the worth of the patient but the qualities of a life worth living. Dr. Barfield recounted several stories about times he tried to sway patients away from aggressive treatment and futile suffering in the last moments of their lives, offering instead the option of palliative end-of-life care. In other words, is a “cure” worth pursuing if it could mean a life of physical anguish or emotional distress? Are a few more years or months or days of that life worth it? There is no correct answer, only a subjective appraisal of what individual patients want for their lives and themselves.

Are conservators the doctor equivalents for their oil painting patients? I won’t push the analogy too far, but the quick pace of science makes discussions about these more subjective, value-driven decisions all the more necessary, in both medicine and art conservation.

“They’re two very different questions,” said Jake, “but in both cases technology has advanced to a time where the question isn’t whether we can save something but whether it’s worth saving. I thought it was a really cool theme that pervaded both things.”

By Tyler Lian. Duke Huang Fellows, 2017

The Huang Fellows Program trains students to understand science in the context of and in service to society. Learn more about the Huang Fellows Program at scienceandsociety.duke.edu.


Photography by Ben Shepard, Duke Initiative for Science & Society

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