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Palace Life Unfolds: Conserving a Chinese lacquer screen

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Images of a student, wearing an optivisor and gloves and working with small tools on a lacquer screen, both at a table and on the floor.

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​Left: WUDPAC Class of 2022 alumna Allison Kelley cleaning the surface of the panel working carefully under fume extraction and using an optivisor to magnify her vision. Right: When an object is large in scale, sometimes you have to work in unconventional spaces and positions!​

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Currently on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art is a 17th century Chinese lacquer screen (F1906.42a-l). The spotlight exhibit titled “Palace Life Unfolds: Conserving a Chinese Lacquer Screen" ​highlights the historical context and extensive conservation treatment of the screen which spans nearly 20 feet in length when fully assembled. The panels are constructed from a wooden substrate with a preparatory ground layer supporting numerous layers of lacquer applied one at a time. When the desired thickness for each panel was achieved, the surface was polished and decorated using the kuancai or “cut colors" technique. The screen depicts scenes from a Han dynasty palace in spring with consorts and children of the emperor engaged in myriad activities. The beautiful colors and detailed carving are still largely intact, though aging and discolored coatings have altered the original vibrancy. The treatment of this screen was largely supported by a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project. Work began in 2019 and much like the original construction, this treatment involved many hands and almost three years of work to complete the examination, care, and treatment of this impressive object.

​​From 2021-2022 during my third-year placement in the Objects Lab, I treated one panel and assisted with the final condition checks and aesthetic compensation of the screen. The treatment protocol was well established by the time I joined the project, and I was happy to lend my efforts by treating panel 1, the first in the sequence appearing on the right of the screen. East Asian lacquer is infamous for losing its beautiful shine upon aging and light exposure as seen in areas of significant blanching on certain panels, but the remaining glossy quality to much of the surface was remarkable. My treatment of the panel addressed condition and aesthetic concerns such as minor cracking and losses to the lacquer and wood support structure at the edges of the panel that resulted from abrasion at the joints and mild warping from the wood itself after exposure to changing environmental conditions. I consolidated any loose or lifting paint and gilt decoration with a well-studied conservation grade adhesive, in acetone applied with a small brush while working under the microscope.

A surprising discovery made during the treatment process was the presence of lacquer fills around three characters indicating previous changes to the inscription on the front of the panel I treated. I took detailed images and highlighted the areas where the fills were present to assist with analyzing the alterations. The reason for such alterations is still being investigated.

Work on this panel alternated between micro and macro levels regularly and moving between the two taught me a great deal about maintaining the big picture even when focusing on the small details of a long-term treatment. I am grateful for the trust the conservation team placed in me to help see this project to its completion.

Allison Kelley (WUDPAC Class of 2022) is a Post-graduate Fellow in Objects Conservation at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. She completed her third-year placement at The Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art from September 2021 through August 2022.

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Detail images of text painted over other text.

​A detail view of one of the altered characters (left) and a digitally enhanced version of the image (right) with a hand drawn overlay to emphasize the changes. ​

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Detail image, through a microscope, of thin gold painted lines; and an image of the student's palette with many shades of black.

​Left: When applying adhesive to lifting paint and the edge of losses, Allison uses the smallest brush possible and works carefully under a microscope to minimize the application of excess adhesive.​ Right: Black is never just black and finding the right color to inpaint fills and match the vibrant black lacquer was a challenge.​

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WUDPAC Class of 2022 alumna Allison Kelley was part of the team that researched and treated an enormous 17th-century screen currently on view at the National Museum of Asian Art.
 
 
11/29/2023
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