Smithsonian Museums Make Art Conservation Part of the Show
Lunder Conservation Center allows visitors to see conservators at work
Washington – For six years American art lovers were deprived two of the country’s most significant collections. The Old Patent Building in Washington badly needed restoration, and that meant the two museums that called it home, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) had to close. Now, both museums are open again, and the public is well rewarded for the wait.
Not only was the Old Patent Building refitted and museum exhibits revamped, but unexpected innovations debuted at the July 1 reopening. The most unique of these may be the Lunder Conservation Center, which has boldly taken conservation out of the back room. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls enclose five conservation areas, which offer the public a look at experts saving precious artworks for posterity. Putting conservation activities on permanent view is a museum first.
The areas on view include separate conservation spaces for paintings, objects of art, paper and frames. Artworks in stages of painstaking restoration are on display, as are the people restoring them.
When asked about working in a fishbowl, SAAM paper conservator Kate Maynor said it took a little adjustment for the conservators, but that it is “fantastic” for the visitors. “It’s not only giving them a window into the more specialized work that we do here, but into more basic preventive care that people can apply to the things that matter to them.”
The conservation labs care for the works in both the SAAM and NPG museum collections. Although conservators rely on the "eyeball" test to assess an artwork, the labs are equipped with sophisticated technological aids. NPG paper conservator Rosemary Fallon describes the process: “We examine it in various lighting conditions, even ultraviolet light, and that can give us clues about what the materials are. Sometimes by looking we can tell what the materials are. Sometimes it’s a little more complicated than that.”
When it gets more complicated, on-site ultraviolet and infrared viewing systems and stereomicroscopes are put to work. If more analysis is required, the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute in Suitland, Maryland, can conduct more extensive tests. Conservators also study the artist’s habits and circumstances, and collaborate with curators to determine what should be done to conserve an artwork. The first step is often to “stabilize” a work, to prevent more deterioration before further treatment. “Our patients can’t speak to us; we have to decipher what they need,” Maynor says.
The 981-square-meter center gives conservators expanded workspace. Labs are equipped with large tables and specialized equipment for cleaning and repairing works of art. There is a suction table for removing stains, a spray booth and other tools of the esoteric trade. Each lab has specific needs. Frame conservators gild, carve and cast materials to restore old frames and make new period-appropriate frames. Painting conservators carefully clean, repair and sometimes retouch paintings. Paper conservators are challenged with preserving ephemera such as prints, photographs, drawings and watercolors. Object conservators restore 3-D objects of diverse materials from small figurines to huge sculptures.
The conservation team also monitors temperature and humidity in the galleries using hygrothermographs. Some fragile works require the creation of microclimates within their glass cases, Maynor explains.
The six-year hiatus while the museums were closed gave curators a chance to conserve pieces for which there was no assessment time during the usual cycle of new and returning exhibitions. “During all that time we were reviewing, examining,” says Fallon.
Beyond maintaining the collections, the center provides a resource for conservation science. The goal is to “inspire all who visit to learn more about how to care for treasured objects at home and encourage them to help preserve public art in their communities,” according to SAAM director Elizabeth Broun.
Information kiosks and displays beside each lab educate visitors about that lab’s particular conservation techniques through video clips and “before-and-after” photos. A live camera lets visitors closely watch ongoing work in the paper lab, the objects lab and the paintings studio.
Conservation becomes more difficult when artists choose materials that do not have prolonged durability. Maynor said, “We work with artists to educate them about the consequences” of using poor materials. Outreach programs also are planned for conservation professionals, students and the interested public, who might want to know the best way to care for Granny’s quilt or that heirloom Federal table.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)