Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Column and Stripe Tour of the Cleveland Museum of Art Conservation Lab (@clevelandart)

Mr. Knutas with Van Gogh's The Road Menders,
prepared for loan, in the Paintings Lab
This evening Rachel I had the pleasure of attending a tour and talk by Per Knutas, Chief Conservator of the Cleveland Museum of Art, as part of a program hosted by Column and Stripe, the Cleveland Museum of Art's affiliate group for young friends.

I've found conservation fascinating both for the ethical and technical challenges and questions posed -- and Rachel has conservation work experience (including, most impressively to me reconstructing the shell of an ostrich egg from over 100 individual pieces while living in Italy) so there was no doubt we would attend this evening's program. I was particularly interested because while Rachel has volunteered in the labs the only part of the tightly-secured conservation suite I've see is the classroom and I'm always up for a behind-closed-doors tour.

Illustrating the level of documentation
that may be associated with the
conservation of a single work.
Per, a relatively new addition to the Cleveland Museum of Art staff, started the evening in the Conservation classroom with an overview of both the profession in general and Conservation at the Cleveland Museum of art, including the ethical considerations such as that everything a conservator does must be documented and reversible. I found it interesting to hear that different considerations apply between "modern" works, where a greater level intervention and consultation with the artist is permitted, versus historical pieces where a very conservative approach is taken.

The Rembrandt amongst the conservator's tools
(Click for a larger version)
Delving further into the inner sanctum -- and uncharted territory for myself and most of the attendees -- lab doors were opened and the covers were literally lifted off of works in the process of being conserved by the museum's staff of science-driven artisans. Take, for example, a Rembrandt undergoing cleaning and conservation by paintings conservator Dean Yoder. A think layer of varnish was laid over the work to isolate the "original" paint from the conservation work, and further paints that fluoresce under ultraviolet light are used for the necessary in painting to make the work done immediately apparent to future scholars and conservators.

Demonstrating the UV Light,
highlighting in painting
The careful treatment of works does not stop there, but also careful consideration of cultural traditions. For example, Mr. Knutas related that in considering critical preservation work on a document with religious significance where the culture forbids disturbing living things. To respect that culture, no animal glues can be used -- no brushes with animal hair can be used. The suggestions that it would be proper not to wear leather belts or shoes while working on the piece and that the conservators involved not eat meat the day before are being considered. I knew conservation was a hyper-detail oriented craft, but I had never considered how cultural concerns could so dramatically affect the execution of conservation -- and the lengths the Cleveland Museum of Art is willing to go to respect those traditions.

 Further, in that regard, the Asian Paintings Lab, staffed by conservator Sara Ribbans, is one of only four in United States museums. Ms. Ribbans was trained in the Japanese tradition, and carries that on in Cleveland. The lab has a distinctly different feel than the other labs we visited, including low tables and Tatami mats -- the tools used, likewise, are the same those that have been used by Japanese artisans for centuries.

Rachel pondering frames
As the tour concluded and we made our way back to the classroom where the talk began, we once again passed through a long hallway lined, floor to ceiling, with empty frames. No, this isn't the secret frame shop in the museum, instead, it's storage for the frames that belong to pieces undergoing conservation. A sort of waiting room in the art hospital, if you will, where frames patiently wait to be reunited with their loved ones.

In any event it's quite an unexpectedly dramatic scene.

Oh, and another tidbit: There are more than 45,000 objects in the Cleveland Museum of Art's collection. Less than 2% are on view at any one time.

For more information about Column and Stripe, or to join, visit


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