When you visit the Chrysler Museum of Art, or any museum for that matter, you come to see thousands of pristine objects, carefully framed or encased in glass, curated to tell a cohesive story about the history of making art.
Although they might be hundreds of years old, these objects often look like they haven’t aged at all. The colors are bright, the silver shines, and the wooden objects are beautifully lacquered. In the context of the immaculate museum space, we often forget that art objects, like anything else, are made from materials that break down, degrade, corrode, and fade.
That’s where the Chrysler’s Art Conservation Department comes in. It’s our job to ensure all of the museum’s objects are preserved in a safe and stable environment. We regulate the elements that cause decay: light (especially harmful UV rays), heat, fluctuations in moisture, and pollutants. In this way, we slow down time for the objects in the collection so that many more generations of people can enjoy them.
In addition, we stabilize, clean, and restore objects that are fragile or simply not looking their best. The Chrysler Museum of Art’s art conservation veteran Mark Lewis specializes in the conservation of paintings. New to the Chrysler Museum family, I am this year’s National Endowment for the Humanities Paintings Conservation Fellow. Together, we restore paintings from the museum’s collection so that they are ready for display here, or for when they are loaned to other museums around the world. This year, museums from all over the U.S. and Europe have asked to borrow pieces from our amazing collection, including the Musee d’Orsay, Paris, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, to name a few. Because we specialize in the conservation of paintings, whenever another kind of object requires restoration (such as a photograph, a piece of glass, or ethnographic textile), we call in a conservator who specializes in that media.
Behind the scenes:
As art conservators, each day we get to be detective, scientist, art historian, and artist. First, the detective work. When a painting comes into the conservation department, the first thing we do is examine it. We ask questions, such as: What is it made of? How was it made? Is it in good condition, or is it falling apart? Has anyone restored it in the past, and if so, is that restoration still doing its job? Was the artwork meant to look the way it does now?
Before we put a painting on display or undertake a conservation treatment, we document everything about the object by writing a condition report and taking lots of photographs. The report is a record of the work’s physical and cosmetic condition. We want to know if it is holding together the way it should, is it clean, and does it look the way it’s supposed to?
Next comes the scientific work. We often use scientific tools to help us understand what a painting is made from, and what materials were used to restore it in the past. We look at paintings through microscopes, with ultraviolet light, with infrared light, and with X-radiography to see how they were constructed. We can even use tools like X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and infrared spectroscopy to determine exactly what pigments and binders were used in paints. Have no fear, these methods will not harm the object.
To understand an artwork, it is often helpful to compare it to other pieces by the same artist or artworks from the same time period. We can also reference letters, notes, manifestos, or artist manuals, written by an artist or his or her contemporaries. This is where we become art historian. Whom was this painted for? Was it meant to depict a Biblical story to a mostly illiterate group of churchgoers? Was it a status symbol for a wealthy aristocrat’s lavish palace? Was it a gift to celebrate a marriage? Was it meant for a public space or someone’s home? By placing an artwork in context, we can begin to understand its function and its intended aesthetic.
Now that we’ve collected all the information we can about the piece, we collaborate with our curatorial team to determine a treatment goal. Given the condition of the work, what can we do to make it look closer to the artist’s intent? This might involve removing a layer of dust so that the image is more visible. Perhaps a layer of old, yellow and darkened natural resin varnish should be removed so that the underlying paint colors can be more seen more clearly. Maybe an old restoration is covering up original paint, or an old tear in the canvas is coming apart. These are all things we look for and consider fixing.
Treatments can take anywhere from a day to thousands of hours depending on our course of action and the size of the painting. During treatment, we have to think like an artist. For example, if there is damage to the original paint, we need to know which colors to mix to get an exact match so that the damage becomes undetectable.
Don’t worry, the paints we use for retouching are easily reversible, so they do not harm or become a permanent part of the artwork.
Although most conservation takes place in our special laboratory, there are opportunities for you to see us restoring paintings in the museum. On selected Fridays, you can watch us restore Old Master Anthony van Dyck’s four hundred year-old painting of St. Sebastian. Our schedule can be found at the Chrysler Museum website. Stop by and ask us everything you ever wanted to know about art restoration!