Preserving the Past for Museum Visitors of the Future
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is getting ready to open a $24 million center that will allow visitors to watch conservators at work.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has begun a lengthy restoration of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” which can be seen by visitors at the museum and followed online.
When the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Fla., wanted to restore “Watermelon Regatta,” a painting from the 1700s that measures 8.6 feet by 6.5 feet, it raised $35,000 in one night through crowdfunding to support the effort. Now the museum is creating a space where visitors can peer through windows to watch conservators at work.
And it’s not just older pieces that are being restored. Joan Mitchell’s “Untitled, 1965,” also at the Ringling, is getting work because the paint has flaked.
Across the United States and around the world, museums are increasingly using conservation to engage visitors and help expand their understanding of what museums do. In some cases, the public efforts began when pieces were too big to move, leaving conservators no choice but to work in an open gallery.
But now museums are bringing pieces out into public spaces, even if the work could have been done in back rooms the public never sees.
The interest among museumgoers has been fueled in part by technology that has made the conservation process more precise. A highly sophisticated device known as a macro X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (MA-XRF), for example, allowed Yale University Art Gallery to determine that underneath a moonlit night scene by the American painter Ralph Blakelock was another work of a figure with two angels — a scene not at all in the Blakelock tradition. That raised the question of whether he changed his style at onetime or borrowed a canvas and painted over it.
The internet has also had a major role in opening the world of conservation to a broader audience. The Boston museum first experienced the public’s interest in conservation in 2007, when work on Thomas Sully’s 12-by-17-foot “Passage of the Delaware” was done on the floor of the museum as part of the Save America’s Treasures grant, recalled Matthew Siegal, the chairman of conservation and collections. “It was a great tease to the building and the new American wing. Its runaway popularity changed our approach,’’ he said. “It made us look at conservation as performance art.’’
Years later, the museum began regularly posting information about conservation on its social media channels and created #mfaConservation on Twitter and Instagram. Three years ago it posted efforts to clean Vincent van Gogh’s “Houses at Auvers” on Facebook; the video has been viewed more than 190,000 times.
Until recently, many museums had been relatively private about conservation. “The mission used to be: display and interpret. Now it is: preserve, display and interpret,” Mr. Siegal said.
At the Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture, this type of work has become a popular subject. “Conservation has come out of the dark,” said Susan Weber, the center’s founder and director. “People like the back story.”
Bard now sends summer students to study in the Rijksmuseum’s conservation studio, and the school has a part-time scientist with her own lab where students are introduced to the subject.
Julie Lauffenburger, head of conservation and technical research at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, linked the rising public interest in conservation to a search for the genuine. “In our virtual world there is a disconnect with what is real,” she said. “Things that are made by humans fascinate people. Conservation offers the chance to be close to the real thing.”
The Walters, which opened 1934, has long shared its conservation projects with the public. “We have had conservation exhibitions since the 1950s in part because we had two women heads of conservation, and they took it very seriously,” Ms. Lauffenburger said. “It was always part of the museum’s mission.”
In February, when the Walters puts its St. Francis Missal on display, the exhibit will include a lengthy explanation of how the book was deconstructed and reconstructed because the binding glue had been severely damaged by bugs. The 12th-century missal’s mystique relies on St. Francis and two followers debating God’s plan for them. As the story is told, they opened the missal three times to a random spot, and in each case a passage told them to renounce earthly goods. And so the Franciscan order took root.
Henry Walters acquired the work in 1913. The conservation work began in 2017 and took two years. The museum, with funding from the Mellon Foundation, hired a conservator, Cathie Magee, to work exclusively on the project. Several times a month visitors could watch.
Conservators like Ms. Magee are continually working with new ways to preserve objects. “In paper conservation, they typically use a rigid gel that acts as a microchemical sponge that releases liquid and sucks up the dirt on an object,” she said.
She experimented with a variant of gel that had not been used for parchment before. “This gel is flexible so it can conform to uneven surfaces, and that is good for parchment because it is rarely flat,” she said.
Increasingly, restoration has had cultural implications, and museums have worked with outside groups to do the work.
The American Museum of Natural History in New York, for example, has begun a full-scale renovation of its Northwest Coast Hall, which opened in 1899 and has displayed artifacts acquired during the late 1800s and early 1900s from indigenous communities ranging from southern Alaska into western Canada and Washington State. As part of the project, the museum has teamed up with experts in areas where the objects were found to help with preservation and restoration.
Among the objects are costumes worn during ceremonies in the communities, explained Samantha Alderson, a conservator for the project. “We have several headdresses that are pieces of high status regalia,’’ she said. “They were worn by the hereditary leader of the nation but are missing inlays of abalone shells. We don’t have the skills to copy them.” The museum reached out to the artist David Boxley, of the Tsimshian tribe in British Columbia. “He obtained abalone, cut it to the piece and we will attach it,” Ms. Alderson said. This three-year effort will eventually be shown across the museum’s digital media channels.
Besides trying to make conservation more accessible to visitors, museums are also beginning to make the career itself more accessible to minority groups.
Two years ago the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at Yale University teamed up with the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Alliance of Museums and Art Galleries in a program to expose students from those schools to the world of conservation.
Its director, Ian McClure, said the program was so successful that Yale repeated it last year. Genevieve Antoine, who graduated from Tuskegee University with a double major in chemistry and physics, attended the Yale program and is now doing research on historic photographs at the institute.
For her, the lure of conservation is the same as it is for a growing audience. “Technical analysis helps to understand objects,’’ she said. “It helps to decode them.”
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