15 years of Conservation Laboratories of the Auschwitz Memorial
15 years ago a conservation laboratory was opened at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which is today one of the most modern of its kind in the world.
The Conservation Laboratories were established in June 2003 thanks to the support of Ronald S. Lauder, whose foundation financed the project. ‘Here, on-site, we managed to assemble a team of conservators who then assessed the condition of the preserved buildings and diagnosed the most important conservation problems. It was the initiative of the then Museum’s director, Jerzy Wróblewski. It allowed us to develop the Master Plan for Preservation, i.e. a long-term conservation plan, which aim is to continuously and comprehensively solve the most significant problems, and therefore provide longevity to all these authentic buildings,’ said Rafał Pióro, one of the creators of the laboratories, and currently the deputy director of the Museum responsible, among others for conservation.
The buildings in the care of the Museum conservators are unique in many respects: historical, emotional and technological and thus their conservation is an extremely difficult challenge. The immense diversity and high degree of complexity of activities in these facilities allow the conservators working here to broadly understand development and recommend new solutions and concepts of conservation. Consequently, the studio is equipped, among others with high-quality research and stereoscopic microscopes, a climate chamber for ageing tests of various materials used in conservation, a portable spectrophotometer for measuring colour, an X-ray fluorescence XRF spectrometer, an ultrasound cleaner, as well as other equipment necessary to conduct various analyses. All tests are documented and recorded using digital cameras installed on the microscopes, as well as in a modern photographic studio.
‘The most critical issue for us is the maximum protection of the original remains and still preserved matter while minimising additional, visible elements introduced, in order to save, display or make it available for visitors. Conservation works are implemented, where possible, in a way that allows the reversibility of individual conservation processes. It provides the possibility of future preservation with the use of more advanced technologies,’ said Jolanta Banaś-Maciaszczyk, Head of Conservation at the Memorial.
‘Cautious conservation is primarily about preserving the existing state, in other words, we do not perform any activities that would change the appearance of the objects. We leave all traces of history; we do not reconstruct, supplement or repair, and we do not try to introduce any aesthetic elements. Therefore, in a situation where we have to introduce a new solution, we usually try to use what the object itself tells us. If we have to introduce new installations that are crucial for the preservation of a particular building, we try to conceal them in the structure of the building. It is of great importance because the encounter of the visitor with the building must be direct - it should not be distracted by any new object, element or space,’ emphasised Rafał Pióro.
The challenges of conservation at the Memorial are enormous. 155 buildings are under the supervision of conservation officers (including, blocks, barracks, post-camp buildings), about 300 ruins and post-camp traces, in particular the ruins of four gas chambers and crematoria in the former Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp vital to the history of Auschwitz, over 13 km of fences from 3.6 thousand concrete pillars and many other devices. Kilometres of roads, drainage ditches, railway tracks with siding and unloading ramp are located in an area of nearly 200 hectares. Historical and post-war low greenery and tree stands (including 20 hectares of forest) are continuously subjected to conservation.
A significant portion of works conducted constitutes conservation treatment of movable objects from the Museum’s collection. It includes, among others about 110,000 shoes, about 3,800 suitcases, approx. 12,000 pots, 470 prostheses and orthoses, 390 items of camp clothing, 246 talliths and 4,100 works of art. In turn, the Museum archive houses nearly 250 metres of current documents, including 48 volumes of camp “Death books”, 248 volumes of documents of the SS Waffen Central Construction Board and Police in Auschwitz, 64 volumes of SS Hygiene Institute documents, as well as 16 volumes of personal files of prisoners and 13,000 camp letters and cards.
The Master Plan for Preservation defines the schedule of conservation works. ‘It was created as a result of previous conservation experience and resulted from the need to organise and ensure conservation works on the premises of the Memorial with a certain consistency, long-term planning and standardisation of specific activities,’ said Agnieszka Tanistra Różanowska, head of the Master Plan for Preservation.
The most significant needs are related to the conservation of the area, preserved to date in the form of a reserve and buildings of the former Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp. A complex of 45 brick barracks located in section BI requires urgent intervention. Execution of works at these unusual objects need comprehensive solutions incorporating complex problems of soil and water, construction, as well as conservation. Therefore, the first projects implemented within the framework of the MPP will predominantly focus on the preparation of these authentic buildings for the multi-stage comprehensive conservation works.
‘It is a specific complex of buildings - They were built at the turn of 1941/42 in the most challenging weather conditions. They were built by Soviet POW’s and were not meant to last for a longer period. Their durability is considerably shorter than the rest of our buildings, and they required urgent actions. It is there that we are gradually implementing all the assumptions we developed based on previous scientific research,’ said Tanistra Różanowska.
Currently, conservation works are ongoing at the barracks numbered 7 and 8 at the BIa section of the former Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp. ‘We began works at these two-brick barracks in 2015, after very long preparations. We consulted all our plans with several specialists. They are buildings that are very difficult to preserve due to their construction. They are buildings with shallow foundations, set on a very wet area; their walls are fragile and thin while the load-bearing walls have a thickness of one brick and have been deformed over the years. At the moment, some brick barracks are supported by internal constructions. We want to secure these walls so that we do not have to use them. Our goal is to have a stable, safe wall, so we that visitors can be allowed into the building. We faced many challenges when we began this project,’ said the project manager Ewa Cyrulik.
Such scope of work conducted at the Auschwitz Memorial also required new financial solutions. In 2009, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation was created. Its objective is to create a Perpetual Fund for financing conservation works and preserving all the authentic remains of the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz.
‘Currently, the assets of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation amount to over 473 million PLN and is one of the largest in Poland. The financial declaration of the Perpetual Fund is approx. 111 million of the planned 120 million euro. Since 2012, the foundation has transferred about 25 million PLN for conservation works at the Memorial, derived from the profits of the Perpetual Capital, which has so far been supported by a total of 38 countries and several individual donors. In 2017, the amount totalled 7.7 million PLN. This year, the sum transferred to the Museums will amount to approx. 10 million PLN,’ said the director of the Museum, as well as co-founder and President of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński.
‘We want to be sure that subsequent generations will get the chance of seeing the authentic space, which is not only a testimony to one of the greatest crimes in the history of humanity but also a place of fundamental importance for the entire European civilisation. Because it is here at Auschwitz that one can fully stand up to the most important questions about man, the society, the poisoned fruits of anti-Semitism, racial hatred and contempt for others,’ said Piotr Cywiński.