The origins of the CRC go back to the Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation des Documents Graphiques (CRCDG). Here is a text (from its origins to ARSAG) tracing the history of the CRCDG, written by Françoise Flieder, its first director (1963-1998). Then a few words on the transition from the CRCDG to the CRCC and finally from the CRCC to the CRC.
Françoise Flieder, « Le Centre de recherches sur la conservation des documents graphiques (CRCDG) »,
La revue pour l’histoire du CNRS , 2004, DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/histoire-cnrs.679
In addition to the countless disasters caused by the Second World War, our national heritage suffered considerable deterioration during this period as a result of poor conservation conditions. For more than six years, the lack of heating and the consequent excess humidity in the book and archive shops of the various heritage institutions encouraged the development of numerous micro-organisms, which found paper a particularly favourable medium in which to grow.
Julien Cain, the National Librarian, discovered the situation on his return from deportation. He became aware of the specific nature of the problems posed by the preservation of written heritage, and of the need to devote urgent, in-depth attention to it. At his instigation, the CNRS created a research post in 1953, which I was given to study these issues. Thérèse Kleindienst, Secretary General of the Bibliothèque nationale and a close collaborator of Julien Cain, was able to convince him that it was necessary to seek solid support at the heart of a multidisciplinary organisation to guide my first steps. Professor Roger Heim, Julien Cain's deportation companion, director of the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle and holder of the chair of cryptogamy, agreed to take me in in his own laboratory to introduce me to mycology, which was not my speciality. At the same time, Thérèse Kleindienst trained me in the science of archiving, and introduced me to the people in charge of collections so that I could work with them to draw up an inventory of the problems they faced on a daily basis.
of the problems they faced on a daily basis. At the same time, in collaboration with Pierre Dury, Secretary General of the Archives nationales, we were compiling a list of the few works published on the subject, which would form the basis of the documentation centre of the Centre de recherches sur la conservation des documents graphiques (CRCDG).
In the 1950s, although there were conservation research laboratories in various countries, few of them were concerned with graphic documents, apart from the Istituto di Patologia del libro founded in Rome in 1938 and the Lenin Library Restoration Service set up in Moscow in 1952. The CRCDG was officially created in 1963, by interministerial decree (Ministry of Cultural Affairs and Ministry of Education), on the initiative not only of Julien Cain and Roger Heim, but also of André Chamson, of the Académie française, Director General of the Archives de France, and Jean Chatelain, Director of the Musées de France, both of whom were interested in the studies undertaken. The decree set out the Centre's objectives: to study the various causes of deterioration of graphic documents and the preventive and curative measures to be implemented to keep them in their original condition for as long as possible.
As the CRCDG's activities were set to expand considerably, the 150 m2 it occupied in the basement of the cryptogamy laboratory soon proved too cramped, and consideration was given to providing it with a larger, more autonomous structure. Here again, Thérèse Kleindienst proved to be very persuasive to Julien Cain and Roger Heim, and in 1971 the laboratories were transferred to very spacious premises (1,000 m2) specially designed for their use, still located within the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle, above the book shops of the central library.
The Centre then left the supervision of the Cryptogamy Laboratory, which had provided scientific support and full administrative and financial support for eighteen years; it now had to take off on its own. It took two years to find an administrative framework for this small team, which at the time consisted of just five people. In 1973, the CRCDG became a mixed unit, with the CNRS, the Ministry of Culture and the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle as its three supervisory partners. Thanks to the benevolent interest and warm support of a number of personalities from these administrations, the Centre has continued to develop and the team has grown: 20 additional ITA posts have been created in ten years.
It was Thérèse Kleindienst who guided the initial research with dynamism, efficiency and skill; she will remain the soul of this laboratory and its true instigator.
The first problem we had to address, back in 1953, was that of disinfection: we had to find a method capable of combating micro-organisms, insects and bacteria without endangering the document. The ethylene oxide used in food processing and surgery met these criteria, but a protocol adapted to cultural property had to be defined. This process was used for the first time in 1967 and 1968 to save a number of precious documents during the great floods in Venice, Florence and Lisbon. The use of this gas is currently being called into question, due to its highly toxic nature for humans. Unfortunately, as no substitute has yet been found, ethylene oxide is still used, but according to a different, extremely strict protocol that respects public health and the environment. Our work on ethylene oxide very quickly led us to question the harmlessness of conservation treatments with regard to the various constituents of books. It was in this area that the CRCDG played a pioneering role in the 1960s, establishing a methodology applicable to all materials, which is now standardised and used in all countries.
A great deal of research has been carried out on paper, as the harmful environment to which it is all too often exposed is the cause of a great deal of damage, which can take a variety of forms. Atmospheric pollution, in particular, causes acid hydrolysis of cellulose, the main constituent of paper. Chemical methods have been developed to neutralise these acids and protect the document against future deterioration. This de-acidification is carried out by immersing the sheets one after the other in a basic solution; but, well aware that only a mass treatment could save the immense quantity of documents at risk, we have developed a process enabling a large number of books to be treated in a single operation without unbinding them. This process and others have been used successfully for many years throughout the world. The reinforcement of degraded paper has also been the subject of a great deal of research, leading to practical applications in restoration workshops.
The problems posed by leather and parchment concern both restoration and conservation. We have tried to gain a better understanding of the various mechanisms by which leather deteriorates, so as to be able to develop appropriate treatments. For example, to combat the drying out of leather, two wax formulas, which have been patented, have been proposed to lovers of old books; their combined action, which is both protective and nourishing, increases the life expectancy of bindings. Although parchment is a very resistant material, it too often suffers from deterioration due to an unsuitable environment: work on strengthening, cleaning and softening has provided solutions in many cases. Our research has extended to the rescue of archaeological leather objects, particularly those found in waterlogged environments and requiring special care. The development of a freeze-drying technique has resulted in a stabilised material with an extremely satisfactory appearance that can be presented to the public. This new freeze-drying process is now being used successfully on a large scale to dry graphic documents, books and archive bundles damaged by flooding.
The field of photography was tackled later, in the 1980s, and our efforts have focused on improving conservation rather than restoration. As in the case of leather, we preferred to study in detail the mechanisms of deterioration of certain old and contemporary phototypes, and in particular processes on unstable supports, such as nitrates and cellulose acetates. However, the emphasis was placed on the preventive measures to be implemented to protect the collections. Methods have been defined to assess the quality of the development treatment to ensure that the chemicals used have been eliminated and do not risk damaging the image at a later date. Research has also focused on the choice of containers and emulsions best suited to long-term conservation.
For a long time, knowledge was passed on in the traditional way: apprentices learned their trade in the workshops from their elders, but this training, although irreplaceable, proved insufficient. Given the diversity of materials used and the sophistication of new techniques, it has become essential for restorers to acquire scientific knowledge, particularly in chemistry, physics and biology. In 1973, at the initiative of Georges-Henri Rivière, Hélène Arhweiler and Jean Dehaye, the CRCDG took part in the creation of a Master's degree in science and technology in "Conservation and restoration of cultural property", under the auspices of Paris I University. The Centre's researchers still provide theoretical and practical teaching there today, and many students are welcomed into our laboratories to prepare master's theses, advanced study diplomas or doctoral dissertations. The French Institute for the Restoration of Works of Art, now known as the "Department for the Restoration of Works of Art of the National Heritage Institute", which was set up later, also calls on the CRCDG's teaching staff to give courses and lectures.This teaching activity is also aimed at future curators, who need to be made aware of the exact sciences so that they can better understand the problems posed by safeguarding the heritage for which they are responsible. For years, students from the École supérieure des bibliothèques, the École du Louvre and the École nationale des chartes have attended our courses. Today, it is through the Institut National du Patrimoine that we are helping to train the curators of tomorrow. Ongoing training is not the least of our missions, aimed at restorers and curators in France and abroad.
Internationally, the CRCDG has always been involved in a number of bodies. Even before the Centre came into being, I was involved in setting up what is now the Conservation Committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM-CC). During one of the very first meetings, in 1958 at the Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam, among the forty or so people present, I met some of those whom I consider to be my masters, and whose names I cannot mention without emotion. I would like to pay particular tribute to Georges-Henri Rivière, Paul Coremans and Arthur van Schendel, who at the time were directors of ICOM, the Royal Institute of Art Heritage and the Rijkmuseum respectively. Although this Committee, which now has almost 2,000 members, was one of the first to be set up, along with the International Institute of Conservation (IIC), other bodies were subsequently created, with which we maintain close relations. Over the last twelve years, this international collaboration has been strengthened by European research programmes. These projects give rise to fruitful exchanges with researchers and industrialists in the European Union, and provide an opportunity to pool a large potential pool of human and material resources.
This record may seem modest. However, it has required a great deal of energy and perseverance on the part of all those who have worked to improve our knowledge of our heritage and to develop safe, simple and effective methods for conserving it for as long as possible. This painstaking work has always been carried out in close collaboration with collection curators and restorers, which has greatly facilitated our work and enabled us to follow the practical results of our research on a daily basis. These years have brought their share of failures and successes, disappointments and hopes. One thing is certain, however: today, in our field, a large number of ideas and techniques have become established, and seem so self-evident that they seem to have always existed: I am thinking in particular of preventive conservation, which is currently a dominant concern, and one that the CRCDG has embraced for almost thirty years.
Arsag, an association for scientific research into the graphic arts governed by the law of 1 July 1901, was founded in 1972 to inform, assist and bring together all those interested in scientific research applied to the conservation of written or photographic heritage. Its role is also to raise public awareness of the problems posed by the conservation of this heritage.
Our written and photographic heritage, made up of fragile materials, plays an essential role in preserving our collective memory. It is our duty to preserve them from deterioration so that they can be passed on to future generations. The risks to this heritage are well known: daily dangers, environmental damage and the passage of time; occasional dangers, fire, flooding, biological contamination, etc. Fortunately, there are remedies. Conservation research, which is constantly progressing, has already provided many solutions to the problems encountered. It covers several complementary fields: study of the materials that make up works of art and documents and of those used for their restoration and conservation; development of specific treatments; determination of the best environmental conditions to ensure that cultural heritage lasts as long as possible. However, these objectives can only be achieved if all those involved in conservation work together in a multidisciplinary spirit: curators, restorers, researchers, photographers, architects, industrialists, etc.
By facilitating the sharing of information and the exchange of experience, Arsag defines itself as the meeting place for these specialists.
This mission is achieved in a number of ways: publication of an annual journal, Support/Tracé, which contains in-depth articles, technical notes, a bibliographical review, reports on conferences and symposia, practical information, useful addresses, etc. Each issue also includes a thematic dossier and a section on the history of science and technology; regular organisation of thematic meetings and international study days bringing together conservation experts from all over the world. These events are the subject of publications; it is possible to provide consultation and advice to its members, particularly in the event of natural or accidental disasters that endanger documents.
In 2007, the CRCDG changed its name to reflect its new missions, becoming the Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation des Collections, CRCC.
Between 2007 and 2012, a number of European funding programmes and the Investissements d'Avenir (Future Investment) programme have triggered a collective process of reflection on research in the field of heritage science. The research planned as part of the new Labex Patrima and Matisse and the new scientific instrument platforms that have been set up have led the MNHN, the CNRS and the MCC to merge the CRCC with the Laboratoire de Recherche sur les Monuments Historiques (LRMH).
In the mid-2000s, the CNRS strongly encouraged the regrouping of small units. With this in mind, the CRCC, USR 3224, joined forces with the Laboratoire de Recherche des Monuments Historique, a national service of the Ministry of Culture and Communication. This laboratory is also involved in research into the conservation and restoration of cultural property, with a strong specialisation in the materials found in historic monuments, whether stone, plaster, concrete, metal, mural paintings or textiles. An agreement was signed in 2012. A similar agreement was signed the following year with the conservation-research team at the Musée de la Musique, which reports directly to the Philharmonie de Paris, a public industrial and commercial establishment under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture and Communication. The joint scientific project was approved by the AERES in 2013. The new service and research unit (USR) is now called the Conservation Research Centre (CRC).
The CRC became a research and support unit (UAR) on 1 January 2022.