Field Trip to The Met's Conservation Lab

posted on 08 Apr 2016 03:16 by catherinestergar
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By Catherine Stergar
In March, a group of Bard Graduate Center students took a class field trip to the conservation lab for East Asian paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to learn firsthand about conservation processes and efforts in the museum setting from Jennifer Perry, the Mary and James Wallach Family Conservator of Japanese Art. The students are currently taking a course entitled “Colors in China and Japan: Objects, Cultures, and Conservation,” a seminar that is analyzing the “materiality of color in Chinese and Japanese objects.” The class is being taught by Professor Stephanie Su, an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow participating in the Cultures of Conservation initiative at Bard Graduate Center. During the tour of the lab, Jennifer Perry showed the students and Professor Su examples of paintings in the museum’s collection that are currently being treated and cleaned. She also discussed her training in the conservation of Japanese mounted paintings and the type of work she carries out in the lab.

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“Our business, first of all, is to care for the collection,” Perry said at the beginning of the tour when describing her and other conservators’ responsibilities to the class. She shared that the conservation team at The Met applies appropriate, stable treatments to objects in the museum’s collection so that they remain structurally sound. Their work aims to stabilize and preserve artwork, not change pieces for aesthetic reasons. They also keep updated condition reports on pieces in the collection, manage display conditions in the museum, and decide which works are stable enough to be loaned out to other institutions. In addition, the conservators work closely with curators in the Asian Art Department to make treatment plans for objects. Perry, who has worked at The Met for the past five years, also emphasized that caring for the collection means knowing what is culturally appropriate for treating and possibly altering objects during conservation projects, and she elaborated on this point by discussing the process of preserving Japanese mounted paintings, which she and her team-members routinely treat in the lab.

As Perry shared her extensive knowledge about Japanese paintings, the class examined a scroll painting from the Edo Period (1603-1867) in Japan that Perry pulled out for the tour. The painting, showing a genre scene in a palace room, depicted three women in colorful robes playing musical instruments. It was mounted in the historic Japanese way, meaning a specially-trained mounter pasted the painting onto several layers of thin paper and framed it with decorative, costly silk borders, which elevated the piece for display. This mounting allowed the painting to be attached to a cord so that it could be hung on a wall while a wooden rod added to the the bottom silk panel kept it straight. Japanese and other East Asian paintings were routinely mounted in this way with several materials combined together for decorative reasons, and it is important for conservators to know the correct process for taking apart these works for conservation treatments in museums.

Perry learned how to mount and re-mount paintings in need of cleaning, new paper-backing, or silk borders when she spent numerous years working in a traditional mounting studio in Japan. From her years of experience and studies, she knows how to use the specific Japanese tools and materials needed for treating and re-mounting paintings. She shared that her lab only uses materials from Japan for their conservation work and seeks to abide by Japanese conservation practices. Perry showed several paintings that had been recently separated from old paper mounts and silk borders. The conservators had cleaned the paintings and stretched them out on boards so that they could be re-mounted on new layers of Japanese paper and re-framed with their original silk borders. Perry explained that this re-mounting process stabilizes the paintings for many years to come. The team also tries to keep the original silk borders with the works as long as they are culturally appropriate. Perry shared that she knows what kind of decorative silk borders will suit paintings best based on their subject matter and time period. She collects varied silk colors and patterns in order to have diverse, appropriate options for paintings that need new silk borders.

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When making color treatments on the new paper-backings or on the original painted surface of works, the conservation team endeavors to use natural or synthetic dyes that are suitable for the piece based on the time period. The conservators also make their own natural wheat starch paste for adhering the paintings to new layers of Japanese paper. This paste and other materials allow the conservation team to apply reversible treatments that will not permanently damage the pieces. They seek to apply as few treatments as possible to maintain the historic integrity of the piece. For example, Perry showed Japanese folding screens with paintings mounted onto them that are currently being prepared for re-mounting and cleaning in the lab. The screens’ hinges have worn out from use over time, and the paintings have suffered from warping and paint loss in several areas. The conservators will take the paintings off the main wooden structure, lightly wash the painted and gilded surfaces, and then re-mount them with their silk borders onto new paper layers and a new wooden lattice in the screens. The team may re-touch the patches of paint loss on the surface, but they generally try to minimize the amount of new paint and materials that are added to the surface since their goal is not to restore the piece to its original condition. For the folding screens, the conservation team mainly hopes to stabilize their construction and re-mount the paintings so that they are no longer warped or peeling away from the wooden frames. This case study allowed the students to understand all of the condition issues that must be assessed before treatments are applied in the lab. The class learned a great deal from Jennifer Perry about not only conservation work but also about culturally appropriate practices in the study and preservation of art.

Image 1: Tagasode (“Whose Sleeves?”), first half of the 17th century, pair of six-panel folding screens, ink, color, gold, silver, and gold leaf on paper. In the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. www.metmuseum.org

Image 2: Fuhiken Tokikaze (active first half of the 18th century), Woman Reading under a Mosquito Net, ca. 1720, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk. In the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. www.metmuseum.org

Image 3: Detail. Tagasode (“Whose Sleeves?”), first half of the 17th century, pair of six-panel folding screens, ink, color, gold, silver, and gold leaf on paper. In the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. www.metmuseum.org

Catherine Stergar is a M.A. candidate at Bard Graduate Center.

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