The 2011 Robert L. Feller Award

Remarks given by Paul Whitmore upon presenting this award to Robert Feller at AIC's 39th Annual Meeting

It is a rare privilege and a great honor for me to present to all of you the first recipient of the Robert L. Feller Lifetime Achievement Award, the man himself, Robert Feller.

For those lucky ones here who know Bob, it will not surprise you that he is being recognized like this for his accomplishments. For those who know him personally, you will also not be surprised to hear that for the last three months I have been arguing with him that this is not all some mistake, and that he really does deserve such an honor. Well, Bob, you could be right, and we are all about to make a big mistake. But I think the evidence is against that view.

I think I can summarize our basic disagreement. You say you were just doing your job. I am saying that you defined the job and set the standard of excellence. When you began your career in 1950 there was no profession called conservation science. In fact, back then conservation was just emerging as a profession, with standards, training, and lifelong development. As conservation was maturing into a profession, science in museums was also evolving. During your career you defined what it meant to be a conservation scientist.

Your work began as a combination of what we now think of as somewhat distinct activities: technical examination of art objects and scientific research. It was your research that really made your reputation, both by its rigor and focus, but also because it was always aimed at practical conservation problems—why materials degrade, how to quantify their important performance properties, and how to predict long term consequences of their use. You put the “conservation” into conservation science. One of my most lasting memories of our discussions was how you would let me breathlessly talk about another crazy idea of mine. Then you would diplomatically pause a beat before gently asking, “But does a conservator really need this?” That question is one of those voices in my head now, and it guides me, as it does all of our conservation science colleagues, as we choose our research paths.

You set the example for how a scientist can provide such service to conservators. Your scientific contributions have helped us understand picture varnishes, color, light damage, and polymer and paper degradation. The scientific principles you established, and your evaluations of treatments such as paper light bleaching, and tools such as the ISO Blue Wool fading standards, were each profoundly important to the development of conservation practice and preservation guidelines. You also put the “conservative” into conservation science, demanding cautious adoption and careful scrutiny as new materials or treatments were put into practice. Perhaps your most widespread and enduring contribution was your testing and introduction of Acryloid B-72 to conservation. It is impossible today to imagine our field without that reliable utilitarian material.

In addition to your research contributions, which are so many and so fundamentally important, you left us with your writings—over 130 publications, including landmark works on picture varnishes, artists’ pigments, and accelerated aging. Each is written in your clear and concise style, a model of explanatory writing. Each is also written not just to a scientist reader, but to teach the science to a conservator reader. You also taught in person, lecturing widely at meetings and the training programs. Many of the conservators here of a certain vintage know you from those visits to the graduate programs.

You could reasonably argue that this work—the research and writing and lecturing—was all a part of your job. But beyond these activities, you also worked in many other capacities to support conservation practice, innovation, and scholarship, particularly under the auspices of the AIC. You were a tireless advisor to conservators, including your work in Florence with the conservators responding in the aftermath of the flood in 1967. You served as President of the IIC—American Group, the precursor to AIC, and were one of the five founding board members when AIC was finally incorporated as a separate organization. In one of your most significant “unsung hero” roles, you were editor/publisher of the Bulletin of the IIC-AG, which at the time was something of a combination of AIC News and the Journal of the AIC. Your extraordinary effort to single-handedly put out that publication has left us our only documentation of the news and research in American conservation during the 1960s and 70s. You were also a crucial contributor to many of the landmark organizational efforts in conservation during the latter half of the last century. For example, you chaired the Conservation Committee of ICOM, and you were president of the National Conservation Advisory Council, which subsequently became the National Institute for Conservation and finally Heritage Preservation, as it is known today.

You have been recognized for your contributions and service many times already. From AIC, you were given the University Products Award and honorary membership. From IIC, you received the Forbes Prize and honorary membership. From the Pittsburgh section of the American Chemical Society, you received the Pittsburgh Award in recognition of your distinguished service to chemistry and humanity. All of these recognitions were richly deserved.

But in your case, in regarding a life of such accomplishment, enduring impact, and passionate advocacy, I think we have entered Hall of Fame or Founding Father territory. I know how that thought makes you cringe. But look around you. We scientists and conservators here are all the beneficiaries of the imprint you have left.

We don’t have a Hall of Fame in conservation. In fact, as a profession we don’t tend to look back, except occasionally when we deplore the legacy of poor conservation treatments left to us. It is a special occasion when we can pay our respects to those remarkable people who shaped our field and brought us to this point, such a far cry from those early days of a fledgling profession. Many of those pioneers already have AIC awards to recognize their contributions. It is fitting that we recognize a career as distinguished as yours with a Lifetime Achievement award. So, Bob, I will say it one more time. This is not a mistake, and if we open the phone lines for voters to call in, there will be no one who would disagree with me. You deserve this award, and to have it bear your name. Congratulations.

Paul Whitmore
Director, Art Conservation Research Center
Research Professor, Department of Chemistry
Carnegie Mellon University

Photo above: Dr. Robert L. Feller at home.

Robert Feller with Sheldon Keck at the 1987 AIC Annual Meeting. Photograph courtesy of Sue Sack.

Dr. Robert Feller in the laboratory of the Mellon Institute's Research Center on the Materials of the Artist and Conservator.

Dr. Robert Feller on the steps of the Mellon Institute.

Dr. Paul Whitmore and Dr. Robert Feller at the Mellon Institute, 1988.

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