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Friedrich Rathgen and his impact on Slovenian Conservation in the beginning of the twentieth century

Nataša Nemeček


Friedrich Rathgen peut être directement associé aux provinces slovènes ou plus exactement à la Duchesse de Mecklenburg. En 1906, Rathgen lui rend visite au château de Bogenšperk et reçoit quelques pièces archéologiques à restaurer. Un autre lien avec l'histoire de la conservation-restauration réside dans les fouilles de Stična, où la Duchesse découvre la fameuse armure. Une fois de plus, les pièces sont envoyées à Berlin pour restauration.

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1This contribution addresses the history of conservation and restoration in the early twentieth century in Slovenia, which was, at the time, part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. To date, very few Slovene conservators and restorers have written on the historical development of our profession.

Friedrich Rathgen

2Nothing worth mentioning has as yet been written in Slovene about Friedrich Rathgen, whom the global conservation and restoration community rightfully calls the father of modern archaeological or, rather, museum conservation. After nearly 30 years of oblivion, the memory of Friedrich Rathgen was revived in 1975 by the geologist and mineralogist Josef Riederer, the newly appointed director of the Rathgen Research Laboratory in Berlin. Mark Gilberg presented the career of Friedrich Rathgen to the global professional community (Gilberg 1987), correcting the false opinion that modern museum conservation had its beginnings in the chemical laboratory of the British Museum and, specifically, started with the Scottish chemist Harold Plenderleith.

The conservation method

3The conservation methods which Friedrich Rathgen describes in his works may be linked to the excavations of Slovene archaeologist Walter Schmid carried out in the Langobard Cemetery in Kranj in 1905. We may indeed assume that Schmid, the curator of the Provincial Museum in 1905–1909, was acquainted with Rathgen’s conservation handbook since his on-field technician Franc Šavnik, an MA in pharmacy, used Krefting and Blell’s method described in the handbook from 1898 to conserve the finds. These data, which are invaluable for the history of conservation and restoration in Slovenia, are a testimony of the first immediate and systematic conservation treatment of archaeological material from a single site, as well as of Schmid’s extensive knowledge (Nemeček 2012).

4Based on published literature and archive data, the person and work of Friedrich Rathgen can also be directly linked to the Slovene provinces or, more exactly, to the Duchess of Mecklenburg. It was indeed thanks to her family connections with the German Emperor Wilhelm II that Friedrich Rathgen visited our provinces. In the spring of 1906, when the Duchess was on a visit in Berlin, she managed – through the good offices of her Berlin acquaintance, government councillor Dr. Schoen – to convince the management of the Chemical Laboratory of the Royal Museums of Berlin to let Dr. Rathgen visit her at Castle Bogenšperk. Rathgen arrived in Bogenšperk towards the end of March and stayed until early April. His primary intention was to acquire objects for the Berlin Museums, but the Duchess refused outright to sell any objects from her collection. As she did not have the money to pay Rathgen’s travel costs, as she had promised, she presented him with a prehistoric mound for research. Rathgen, however, had no intention to participate in the excavations, but left the matter to his collaborator Alfred Götze, an archaeologist and expert on prehistory. During his visit, Rathgen examined several objects excavated by the Duchess in the previous year, and was amazed by their strange deterioration. He wrote: “The contamination with soil, which is usual in the excavated archaeological objects, can strangely not be seen”. Upon his departure from Bogenšperk the duchess handed him some material to try and establish the causes of their deterioration in the Berlin laboratory (Rathgen 1906).

The Stična armour

5Other highly interesting links from the viewpoint of the history of conservation and restoration of archaeological objects are the 1913 excavations in Stična, where the Duchess excavated the famous Stična armour (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 The Duchess of Mecklenburg on archeological site of Stična

Fig. 1 The Duchess of Mecklenburg on archeological site of Stična

Photograph of Duchess of Mecklenburg, taken when she excavated the Stična armour in 1913.

Credits: © National Museum of Slovenia.

6Once more, the finds were sent to Berlin for restoration. After only three months, on October 6, 1913, conservation was finished and the armour was exhibited in the entrance of the imperial palace (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 The Stična armour

Fig. 2 The Stična armour

Photograph of the Stična armour and helmet after the extensive restoration in 1913 by the conservator at the Berlin Royal Museums, Carl Tietz.

Credits: Photo: Staatlichen Museen in Berlin, 1922.

7 A landmark year concerning detailed knowledge of the history of these conservation interventions was 1995, when the same armour was once more conserved and restored in the workshops of the Prehistoric Museum of Berlin. The findings were first published by the restorer Herman Born in 1999 (Born 1999). During the repeated conservation and restoration process it was established that the back part of the armour had been extensively heated with a flame in the past. Missing and fragile parts had been supported with an up to 1.5 mm thick copper and brass sheet, fixed to the original with 32 copper rivets. This addition weighed over 1.5 kg. But this was not the end of the first conservation interventions, as the right side of the armour was tied with new, added leather straps, and the left side and all four shoulder parts were strengthened with iron clasps and leather straps. This made the armour again fit to wear, as had been the emperor's explicit wish.

8In spite of the negative historical role of the Duchess of Mecklenburg, who for reasons of profit allowed highly precious archaeological material to be taken out of Slovenia, we may find some comfort in the fact that the conservation of precious archaeological objects was carried out by the most prominent experts of the time. On the other hand, it is regretable that Rathgen's visit had to take place "in utmost secrecy", thus preventing possible cooperation with the then Provincial Museum of Ljubljana. The museum indeed had a high demand for adequately trained staff for the conservation of material from archaeological excavations.

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Born, H. 1999. "Ein Brustpanzer der Hallstattzeit, Archäologische Bronzerestaurierung in Berlin damals und heute". Restauro 105(6): 422.

Gilberg, M. 1987. "Friedrich Rathgen: The Father of Modern Archaeological Conservation". Journal of the American Institute for Conservation (JAIC).

Nemeček, N. 2012. “Friedrich Rathgen, the Father of Modern Archaeological Conservation-Restoration. The German Conservation School in Slovenia at the Time of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy”,  Argo 55(2): 24–39.

Rathgen, F. 1906. Archives Museum für Vor-und Frühgeschichte. No. 575/06, 31. 3. 1906.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 The Duchess of Mecklenburg on archeological site of Stična
Légende Photograph of Duchess of Mecklenburg, taken when she excavated the Stična armour in 1913.
Crédits Credits: © National Museum of Slovenia.
Fichier image/jpeg, 112k
Titre Fig. 2 The Stična armour
Légende Photograph of the Stična armour and helmet after the extensive restoration in 1913 by the conservator at the Berlin Royal Museums, Carl Tietz.
Crédits Credits: Photo: Staatlichen Museen in Berlin, 1922.
Fichier image/jpeg, 57k
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Référence électronique

Nataša Nemeček, « Friedrich Rathgen and his impact on Slovenian Conservation in the beginning of the twentieth century », CeROArt [En ligne],  | 2013, mis en ligne le 30 octobre 2013, consulté le 28 juin 2017. URL :

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Nataša Nemeček

Nataša Nemeček received her degrees in Art History (2003) and in Restoration (2004) from University of Ljubljana. She gained experience with ancient finds at numerous archaeological sites (1998–2003) and as a freelance conservator working on wall paintings and polychrome sculptures (2003–2005). Since 2006, she has been employed at the National Museum of Slovenia as a conservator-restorer of historical metal objects and numismatics. She is finishing her Master's degree on the history of metal conservation in the National Museum of Slovenia. National Museum of Slovenia, Prešernova 20, 1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia.

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CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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