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Alumni Professional Venture Fund awardee strives to bring museum audiences closer to lacquerware objects

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A conservator, wearing a lab coat, sits at a table and works on a laptop computer. Several large vases sit on nearby tables.

​PSP alumna Maria João Petisca​ working on the archival documentation regarding lacquerware objects at Museu Nogueira da Silva, Braga.

​UD Preservation Studies Doctoral Program alumna Maria João Petisca is focused on sharing her work and research with non-specialist audiences. In this blog post, Dr. Petisca recounts how she used her recent alumni Venture Fund award to partner with national universities in Portugal, studying their lacquer collections to assist with preservation and share these inspirational treasures with the public. 

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A conservator uses a flashlight to examine the surface of a decorated wooden screen.
​Petisca e​xamining the Chinese Coromandel screen (MB74) at Museu Nogueira da Silva, Braga.

​My name is Maria João Petisca and I am a Preservation Studies doctoral program alumni. I completed my Ph.D. in August 2019 with a dissertation dedicated to Chinese lacquer titled Investigations into Chinese export lacquerware: Black and gold, 1700-1850. I am based in Lisbon, Portugal, and work as a private wood and lacquer conservator. Concurrently, I am a collaborative researcher at the Instituto de História de Arte/NOVA FCSH (Art History Institute/NOVA University of Lisbon – School of Social Sciences and Humanities). One of my main focuses, particularly since the completion of my Ph.D. is to share my work and research with non-specialist audiences, and my year of 2022 was dedicated to develop new ways to do so. In my work as a lacquer conservator for the last twenty years, I have noticed that the general public is not usually familiar with all the characteristics of lacquered objects and their conservation constraints. Nonetheless, I also quickly realized that the technical and historical information I was providing to different audiences, if adapted to those audiences, was generally received with tremendous empathy, and that people were fond of this peculiar material and eager to know more about it. From my professional work experience I believe that the less the public knows about art objects the less they will care for them, and ultimately, contribute to their protection and preservation. With that in mind I started developing a series of workshops directed to non-specialist museum audiences aiming to decipher lacquer as an artistic material to its participants and introduce them to lacquered objects held in Portuguese collections while promoting social interactions. The knowledge and understanding of Portuguese lacquerware heritage will bring audiences closer to the objects, creating a bond and a sense of belonging with these pieces that ultimately promote preservation efforts towards them. 

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A room with wooden bookcases along all the walls. The bookcases are filled with books.

​Japanned bookcases in a private section of the Biblioteca Pública de Braga, Universidade de Minho.

​The Professional Venture Fund from the Art Conservation Department, UD allowed me to spend a week in Braga, northwest of Portugal, with the goal of preparing future workshops in that city. I have established a partnership with Instituto Confúcio and Museu Nogueira da Silva, both part of the Universidade do Minho, in Braga, and stayed in the city from May 8th to the 13th. The majority of my time was spent at the Museu Nogueira da Silva. António Nogueira da Silva (1901-1976), a native of Braga, was a businessman and philanthropist, having collected throughout his life paintings, textiles, ceramics, furniture, and tapestries, among other art objects.

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Historic terraces and murals overlook ornate gardens.

​Gardens of the Museu Nogueira da Silva, Braga.​

In 1975, Nogueira da Silva left in his will, his house and all his art collection to the Universidade do Minho. The collection encompasses several examples of both Asian as well as European lacquerware. These include a Chinese Coromandel screen, a Japanese inro, a set of English japanned table and chairs, a set of 4 Cantonese lacquered nesting tables, a red japanned chest of drawers, among other smaller objects. My first three days in Braga were dedicated to the study of these lacquered objects at the museum. I was able to observe 28 objects in detail, research about their provenance, and have access to archival documentation the museum has about these pieces. The study of these objects will allow me to tell their story to the future participants of my workshops and enable their approach and understanding about these museum objects. At the same time, an assessment of the conservation state of the objects was registered contributing to help the museum define its conservation plans and priorities.​

During my week, and through the generous availability of Dr. António Lázaro, Director of Instituto Confúcio, Universidade do Minho, I was able to visit other museums in Braga, some of them with lacquered objects in their collections that are not in public display. We visited and were welcomed at the Museu-Tesouro da Sé, Palácio do Raio – Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Braga, and Biblioteca Pública de Braga, also part of the Universidade do Minho. These visits allowed me to see and study lacquerware objects that I was not aware of and consider the inclusion of some of them into my future workshop projects to take place in the city of Braga.

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Screen image of an instagram announcement. The announcement includes an image of an ornate wood decoration.

An ​Instagram post from the Instituto Confúcio, Universidade do Minho advertising the workshop.​

​On Thursday, April 11, I adapted and taught a workshop to the Visual Arts students, from the School of Architecture, Arts, and Design, Universidade do Minho. My goal was to bring the students closer to the lacquer objects, and introduce them by explaining their manufacturing techniques and decorative features. The students were challenged to bring some of their artistic materials, to which I added more that would help them to recreate lacquer surfaces such as black paper and gilded pens, so they could create their own projects in situ, having this “lacquer" influence as inspiration for their own arts and design projects.​

The workshop took place in Guimarães (a city half an hour away from Braga and where another campus of Universidade do Minho is located) at the Museu Nacional Alberto Sampaio and the Paço dos Duques de Guimarães. Each one of these collections' houses two of the oldest lacquered objects known in Portugal. These are a 17th-century Chinese (?) lacquered trunk at the Alberto Sampaio Museum, and a 17th-century Chinese lacquered chest at the Paço dos Duques collection. Our morning started at the storage facility of the Museu Nacional Alberto Sampaio, where the 17th-century lacquered trunk is kept. The museum conservators also brough a set of 18th- century red japanned chairs to that area so that we could discuss the difference between Asian lacquer and European lacquered objects. We then walked (10 minutes' walk) to the Paço dos Duques building. There, I made a short presentation about the different materials that are called lacquer and how objects in Asian lacquer are made and conserved. Our group then proceeded to the room were the other 17th-century Chinese lacquered chest is exhibited and spent the rest of the morning discussing this object that testifies the first contacts between Portugal and China.

My next goal is to expand these workshops to more museums, in and outside Lisbon, and in a near future, create an exploratory project to apply for funding that will allow me to adapt the workshops to different museum audiences, as well as allow the museums to offer the workshop at reduced prices so that more participants can benefit from it.

— Maria João dos Santos Nunes Petisca / May 29, 2024

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Images of students and teacher viewing museum collections.
Petisca a​t Paço dos Duques, Guimarães (left), observing the 17th-century Chinese lacquered chest and discussing its conservation challenges with the students, and with the students at the storage area of the Museu Nacional Alberto Sampaio, Guimarães (right). (Sampaio image courtesy Natacha Moutinho.​)

The Department of Art Conservation's annual Professional Venture Fund offers grants ranging from $500 - $2500 to honor and support the work of alumni from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation and the Preservation Studie​s Doctoral Program. Grants many be used to support the development and implementation of community or outreach programming, facilitate the creation and/or delivery of workshops and seminars at all levels, advance initiatives that may strengthen research and scholarship resulting in blog posts or peer-reviewed articles such as collections-based travel or other educational opportunities, or purchase urgently needed equipment. Recipients are expected to use these grants to strengthen their knowledge, impact, and/or practice and the reach and partnerships of the art conservation profession. The first cohort of Venture Fund projects included the initial conservation assessment and consultation for building long-term collections care programs for the National Art Gallery in Sri Lanka, attendance at a nine-week online continuing education class hosted by the University of Washington, the creation of a new podcast for heritage professionals, and the purchase of video and microscope cameras and lighting equipment for sharing conservation work. The next set of awardees included the 3D Documentation of Black Historic Landscapes, a project to increase accessibility of 2-D Works of art for museum visitors with blindness and low vision, and a project to document the damage and destruction of twentieth-century architectural heritage in Ukraine.

For more information about the alumni Professional Venture Fund, contact Susan Behrens at behrens@udel.edu.​

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