Art History and The Threats to Artwork

Art History Definition

Art history represents one of the ways historians study and appreciate artworks. Those who study art history seek to understand what art meant in the original culture both from the creator and the intended audience. As an academic field, art history views historic artwork as an embodiment of the values, goals, and aspirations of their origin’s culture.  The field involves a wide range of artwork. These include paintings, sculptures, furniture, architectural objects, and many other objects with a decorative aspect. Art history is important as it exposes us to humanity’s past cultures providing rich insights into them. For example, through art, historians can trace the different transitions a particular culture has gone through.

Threats to Artwork

As already mentioned, art history provides human civilization with a way to study its past. Some threats do impact our ability to do this. Today, some of the artworks that played an important role in depicting various past cultures no longer exist. Others do exist but have significantly deteriorated from their original state. The disappearance and deterioration of historic artworks can be attributed to both natural and man-made threats.

Two of the most common natural threats to artwork are natural disasters and environmental factors. Natural disasters include earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, landslides, and tsunamis. Natural disasters have destroyed a significant portion of historic artwork. For example, in 1755, the Ribeira Palace in Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami. In the process, a huge collection of art was lost. The Lighthouse of Alexandria in Egypt was considered to be the tallest architectural structure of its time and is among the seven wonders of the ancient world. However, the once-great structure fell into ruins after being hit by earthquakes multiple times. On the other hand, environmental factors include sunlight, humidity, and pollution. Photodegradation is the material breakdown of art due to constant exposure to sunlight. Art that has been overexposed to sunlight becomes faded over time, making it hard to analyze. Humidity, on the other hand, causes organic materials to decompose. As a result, historic paintings done on organic materials such as paper have decomposed. Mold grows in high humidity conditions. It is one of the threats that have destroyed architectural artwork.

Apart from the natural threats to the artwork, we also have man-made threats. A good example of a man-made threat is the destruction of the artwork. For example, in 2015, the terrorist organization destroyed the Nimrud historic site in Iraq (Reymond, n.d.). Looting is another man-made threat that threatens art history. Once a historic artifact is taken away from its point of origin, it makes it hard to provide context.  Looting of historic art is not a new concept. The Romans looted historic artwork from Greece to signify their military dominance.  In 2003, the Iraq Museum in Baghdad was burglarized, and an estimated 15,000 items fell into the hands of thieves.

For historians to get the full context of what an artwork meant, it needs to be protected against the threats discussed above. Unfortunately, most artwork has not been protected. This has greatly affected the interpretation procedures. Natural disasters such as earthquakes are also a hindrance to interpretation and analysis as some of the historic artworks are buried under rocks and minerals. Some artworks have been damaged to the extent they offer little to no insight. It is important to ensure that artwork is protected against the above threats so as to ensure it does not lose its true value.

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