The 20th century has produced a wide range of art objects, buildings and industrial properties. The cultural value of this recent heritage is not obvious to everyone. Aspects of how to manage and preserve it also remain unclear. The Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) routinely gets questions about this from heritage professionals, private individuals and policymakers. The 20th-century Heritage Programme was created to supply answers.
Challenges past and present
The preservation, management and presentation of 20th and even 21st-century heritage pose various challenges for heritage professionals. To properly care for and support the potential of modern Dutch heritage, they need knowledge. At present, that knowledge tends to be scattered or underdeveloped.
Thorough analysis of the most urgent questions and future prognoses requires understanding an object’s past, as well as knowledge of historical materials and techniques and of the influence of restoration interventions and environmental factors such as light, temperature, damp and grime. The key to it all is the artist or architect: understanding which materials they used, and how.
Added to this is the more recent push to use sustainable processes and materials to support the energy transition. But does the substitution of original materials mean a loss of cultural qualities? And, if so, what new questions might this raise?
20th-century Heritage Programme
Increased knowledge about heritage can enhance both cultural appreciation for that heritage and awareness about how best to preserve, manage and present it. The 20th-century Heritage Programme therefore focuses on three themes:
Materials: building knowledge and expertise about material production, application and ageing
Tools for improving the Conservation and Preservation of objects and/or their constituent materials
Value and Use: promoting public appreciation and thus optimal use.
The key to achieving these objectives is thoroughly anchoring knowledge and exchange with partners, stakeholders and also the general public. Eight projects have been set up to delve into the three themes. They are listed below with brief descriptions.
This programme, which runs from 2021 to the end of 2023, builds in part on the Cultural Heritage Agency’s earlier Heritage of the Modern Age programme (2015-2019).
This Cultural Heritage Agency project is developing tools for the management, conservation and restoration of plastics in modern and contemporary art and design collections.
All modern and contemporary art and design collections have large numbers of objects made from plastics. As plastics are generally not meant to last forever, their management and preservation pose a problem for Dutch museums. This is especially true when artists used them in ways other than ‘intended’, resulting in damage and degradation that can significantly shorten the lifespan.
After the successful ‘Collection knowledge 2.0 – Plastics’ project concluded in 2019, several urgent new research questions arose. For example, what can be done to prevent deterioration of elastomers? This is happening faster than expected. Too little is known about 3D-printed objects. For instance, how do we clean them without risk of damage? There are also plastics that give off odours when new or with age. What is it we’re smelling, and is there a risk to employees, visitors and/or other objects in the vicinity? In this Plastics follow-up project, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) is investigating these questions.
The Cultural Heritage Agency is conducting this project in collaboration with a range of modern and contemporary art and design museums.
Results of four subprojects
Prognosis of polyurethane (and other) elastomer and 3D-printed object degradation
Preventive and other conservation measures for elastomers and 3D-printed objects
Information on the potential harms of ‘smelly plastics’ to employees and/or nearby objects
Restoration methods for heritage objects made from plastic. For example: techniques to reverse yellowing in plastics, research into surface cleaning with ozone water instead of solvents and detergents
Project to gather knowledge about materials use and conservation in colour photography for practical application.
Among museums, there is growing demand for knowledge about the conservation of both analogue and digital, and particularly colour, photographs. Knowledge about printing procedures, finishing techniques, supports and terminology. About how to store and present prints to ensure their future preservation. This project is directed at the long-term conservation of photographic artworks in Dutch museum collections so they can stay accessible to the public.
Bilingual digital platform bringing together information on the most common and/or problematic analogue and digital photographic processes, supports and finishing techniques, including an identification tool and conservation guidelines
A sample set of 52 reference materials
Two trained photo conservation specialists
Thirteen subcollections of identified and registered photographic works
Dutch colour photography thesaurus and colour photograph acquisitions checklist
The Photography project is being coordinated for the Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE) by the Foundation for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (SBMK) in conjunction with the University of Amsterdam (UvA). The UvA and the RCE’s National Heritage Laboratory will also be training two young heritage professionals. Funding contributors are the Gieskes-Strijbis Fonds, the Mondriaan Fund and the Wertheimer Fonds, managed by the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds.
Thirteen institutions with photography collections are partners in the project: the Amsterdam Museum, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Bonnefanten, De Domijnen, Frans Hals Museum De Hallen, Het Nieuwe Instituut, Huis Marseille, Kröller-Müller Museum, Kunstmuseum Den Haag / Fotomuseum Den Haag, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Rabo Kunstcollectie and RCE Art Collections Department.
Supporting/advising partners are the Rijksmuseum, NICAS, National Archives of the Netherlands and Nederlands Fotomuseum.
This Cultural Heritage Agency project was set up to gather, expand and provide access to knowledge about building materials from the period 1940-1990. Its aim is to support the maintenance of recent built heritage and enlarge public appreciation for it.
Three-quarters of the Netherlands’ built environment dates from after the Second World War, including millions of homes and thousands of offices, schools, hospitals, churches, shops, museums and theatres. Many date from the Reconstruction period, but a great deal was also built thereafter. Over the next ten years, another million homes will be built in the Netherlands to respond to rising residential demand. This demand can only be met if existing buildings continue to fulfil their present function. However, a great many buildings erected in the second half of the 20th century are even now coming to the end of both their material and functional lifespans. Demolition is not uncommon in such cases, resulting in the loss of materials and structures. Increasingly, the desire to adapt and green existing buildings on the one hand, and interest in their architectural and cultural-historical qualities, on the other, is prompting questions about the construction materials used and how to handle them.
In this project, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) is developing knowledge and a vision to share with professional practitioners, including consultants, architects, monument conservation workers, architecture and building historians, restoration architects, building contractors, property owners and managers, and educators in the field. This will meet the growing need for independent scientific expertise about materials and techniques used in construction, spanning their history, applications, characteristics and treatment methods in relation to their cultural-historical significance.
The RCE is conducting this project in collaboration with a range of universities, knowledge institutions and professional practitioners.
Knowledge about new building materials and constructions used in the Netherlands and their applications in the period 1940-1990
Database and knowledge base on these materials’ history, characteristics, applications, construction techniques and building systems
Physical reference collection connected with the database
Publication of a descriptive and illustrated account of these materials and their applications in relation to the architecture they were used to create
Conservation and restoration guidance
Evaluation framework for these materials
In this project, the Cultural Heritage Agency is gathering, examining and sharing information about the characteristic colours of built heritage from the period 1940-1980. It responds to calls to restore the original colour schemes and thus character of these buildings.
Built heritage from the period 1940-1980 (Reconstruction and Post ‘65) requires active preservation efforts to prevent it from being lost. One important aspect is buildings’ colour schemes. How can we learn more about the colours originally used and make them available once more?
Few original colour fans and product catalogues made for paint and linoleum manufacturers still survive, and translating them to modern-day paints and materials takes great precision. Colours in original photographs meanwhile are prone to discolouration. How can we engage manufacturers to safeguard this cultural heritage? We need their information and their willingness to bring specific colours, paints and materials back into production. How can we gain insight into the specific research techniques needed to identify authentic paint layers? In everything ‘from a chair to a city’ (in the words of architect Jaap Bakema (1914-1981)), the aura of heritage is after all defined by that authentic layer. The right colours can enhance building quality both streetside and inside, thus contributing to residents’ appreciation for their appearance and to the enjoyment and preservation of these properties.m to take action themselves.
The Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) is conducting this project in collaboration with the City of Rotterdam, the Post-war Reconstruction Community Rotterdam platform, Het Nieuwe Instituut, the University of Amsterdam, TU Delft, Docomomo, Forbo and paint manufacturers Sikkens, AkzoNobel and others.
Binding agents, through laboratory tests, archival research, literature reviews and interviews with painters/paint makers
Post-war Reconstruction Community Rotterdam colour fan
The project also aims to get residents involved in the problems and results of this research, enabling them to take action themselves.
In this project, the Cultural Heritage Agency is studying a selection of paintings and reliefs by 20th-century artists to identify risks and provide guidance on the management and preservation of comparable works.
All museums with modern and contemporary art collections have paintings made using non-traditional methods. Many are unvarnished and were created using techniques and materials subject to unknown forms of degradation, making them more vulnerable. Discolouration, delamination, paint drips and blanching all affect a painting’s stability and appearance. Surface grime requires the application of cleaning methods in works that may be sensitive to water, solvents and contact. Overpaintings (even by artists themselves) may also raise questions about the original surface.
Museums don’t always recognize these problems in time. To support their presentations, loans, conservation conditions and treatment methods for paintings with fragile surfaces, museums need additional knowledge to understand these problems as well as guidance on what actions to take.
This project is focusing in particular on Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Karel Appel (1921-2006) and Jan Schoonhoven (1914-1994), as these three iconic artists’ works exhibits all of these problems. The research includes archival research, literature reviews and material-technical analysis of individual paintings both on location and in the lab.
The Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) is conducting this project in collaboration with Kröller-Müller Museum, Kunstmuseum Den Haag, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Fondation Beyeler Basel, the University of Amsterdam and various freelance conservators.
Detailed condition reports on the works
Specification of links between degradation and the use of particular materials (pigments, binding agents, additives), techniques, time of creation, and storage and restoration history
Aids for interpreting overpaintings (by the original painter or others)
Guidance on conservation and restoration
In this project, the Cultural Heritage Agency is gathering and sharing knowledge about the use of synthetic organic pigments in modern painting.
Since their introduction in the early 20th century, synthetic organic pigments (SOPs) have conquered the world as a both less expensive and more colourful alternative to traditional pigments. Every year, hundreds more flooded the market. Though popular with prominent, progressive artists, architects and interior decorators, the use of these new pigments in art objects is almost entirely undocumented.
SOPs are difficult to detect and identify and consequently little is known about their structure, characteristics and stability. Learning more about these factors would provide additional guidance for dating and authentication of artworks and for more effective conservation and restoration. New research equipment, combined with archival research, now make it possible to reconstruct industrial production methods and detect pigments in reference materials and artworks. This provides better insight into their stability and behaviour over time and will enable recommendations for conservation and restoration measures.
The Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) is conducting this project in collaboration with a number of Dutch museums and collections, the Royal Talens Archive, the BASF and Bayer archives and two reference collections in Germany (the dye collection at Niederrhein and another at TU Dresden). Technical exchange on the analytical characterization of SOPs is taking place within SOPRANO, an international research group.
SOP analysis protocol
Overview of historical uses of SOPs by art paint manufacturer Talens
Overview of historical recipes used by pigment and paint manufacturers (Talens, BASF, Bayer and predecessors)
Overview of the origins and chemical composition of SOPs in the RCE reference collection
Overview of pigments in a selection of paintings from the period 1918-1950 in Dutch museums, and creation of a database
Digitization of archive material for colour and pigment production and creation of a database for reference, research and archive material
This project aims to expand knowledge of materials and techniques by interviewing artists, architects and makers, thus securing knowledge at the source and making it available to aid the management and preservation of 20th-century artworks.
The Dutch National Collection contains many artworks by living artists. They can provide crucial information about the specific materials and techniques they chose to use, how they used them, and their significance. This information has never been recorded for many artworks, yet is essential in order to make the right decisions when conserving and restoring them. Before interviewing artists and others, a uniform procedure is needed. How will interviews be conducted, for example? How should the resulting information be documented long-term, so it will still be usable in the distant future?
The Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) is conducting this project in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam (for interview transcription using open-source automatic speech recognition), the Dutch National Centre of Expertise and Repository for Research Data – DANS (for information storage) and several modern and contemporary art museums.
Procedure/process description for conducting, recording, dissemination and long-term retention of interviews
Toolkit containing this process description along with practical tools including a camera, microphone, the book The artist interview, a checklist etc.
Decision tree for the research question: What are the most suitable formats for conducting, recording and retaining interviews?
Series of sample interviews with artists, heirs, producers etc. to aid the management and preservation of heritage objects
Contribution to the description of artistic practice and conservation history in the Netherlands
This project is directed at developing case studies for material-technical research based on 20th-century objects in the Cultural Heritage Agency’s collection.
The Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) manages a large portion of the State Collection at the CollectieCentrum Nederland (national collection centre; CC NL). This collection represents a cross-section of materials and techniques used over the centuries in all conceivable disciplines. Its focus is on the 20th century, a period in which there is still much to learn as regards materials and techniques.
Various entities in this field have an ongoing need for relevant case studies. At the same time, all kinds of interesting discoveries are being made in the collections that never come to light. Several criteria have been formulated to better connect this supply and demand:
Does the case help broaden our knowledge about shared heritage?
Can students in this field learn from it?
Will the research aid successful restorations?
Will the conservation/restoration aid in loans?
Does the research and treatment tell a worthwhile story?
This project seeks to systematically ‘mine’, save and provide access to the State Collection’s treasure trove of information for use in practice. By learning more about materials and techniques, we will learn more about responsible collection management and preservation as well. This research also taps a wellspring of marvellous stories about the genesis of artworks – and their inevitable deterioration. The popularity of Dutch TV programmes such as Het geheim van de meester and Project Rembrandt have already shown there is a growing interest among the wider public in the fabrication processes and material-technical side of our cultural heritage.
Method and instructions for the uniform recording of case studies and interesting materials and techniques
Supply of case studies for educational use and thesis projects
Collaborative project with a (preferably smaller) museum in the form of a loan or publication
Publication on findings/methods
Series of smaller publications on specific case studies
Collaboration and education
The Cultural Heritage Agency is conducting this programme in collaboration with many heritage sector partners both in and outside the Netherlands, including museums, universities, research institutes, municipal heritage keepers and architects, and other heritage organizations.
Stakeholders, policymakers and other participants will be invited to discuss ideas and provide input throughout the programme.
Students and a range of education institutions will also be brought on board to work on the programme’s subprojects.
Prof. dr. E. (Ella) Hendriks, Professor Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, Faculty of Humanities at University of Amsterdam
Prof. Ir. W. (Wessel) de Jonge, Professor of Heritage & Design at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, Delft University of Technology
Dr. S. (Sandra) Kisters, Head of Collections and Research at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam
Dr. T. (Tatja) Scholte, Conservation of Contemporary Art, Senior Researcher at Cultural Heritage Agency
Ir. D. (Dirk) Houtgraaf, Strategic Advisor, Cultural Heritage Agency