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News Preserving the past for museum visitors of the future

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​Cathie Magee (Samuel H. Kress Fellow, left), and Abigail Quandt (Head of Book and Paper Conservation) had to deconstruct and then rebuild the 12th-century St. Francis Missal at the Walters Art Museum. Photo by John Dean; courtesy of Mr. Dean and the Walters Art Museum.

​WUDPAC alumnae at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore are among the conservators featured in a new article in the New York Times. Excerpted from an article by Geraldine Fabrikant for the New York Times:


The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is getting ready to open a $24 million center that will allow visitors to watch conservators at work. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has begun a lengthy restoration of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” which can be seen by visitors at the museum and followed online. When the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Fla., wanted to restore “Watermelon Regatta,” a painting from the 1700s that measures 8.6 feet by 6.5 feet, it raised $35,000 in one night through crowdfunding to support the effort. Now the museum is creating a space where visitors can peer through windows to watch conservators at work. And it’s not just older pieces that are being restored. Joan Mitchell’s “Untitled, 1965,” also at the Ringling, is getting work because the paint has flaked.

Across the United States and around the world, museums are increasingly using conservation to engage visitors and help expand their understanding of what museums do. In some cases, the public efforts began when pieces were too big to move, leaving conservators no choice but to work in an open gallery. But now museums are bringing pieces out into public spaces, even if the work could have been done in back rooms the public never sees. . . .

Left: Pastedowns of parchment manuscript waste are lifted from the boards using gels. Right: The 19th c. leather spine is mechanically removed from the textblock. Photos by John Dean; courtesy of Mr. Dean and the Walters Art Museum.

​Julie Lauffenburger, head of conservation and technical research at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, linked the rising public interest in conservation to a search for the genuine. “In our virtual world there is a disconnect with what is real,” she said. “Things that are made by humans fascinate people. Conservation offers the chance to be close to the real thing.” The Walters, which opened 1934, has long shared its conservation projects with the public. “We have had conservation exhibitions since the 1950s in part because we had two women heads of conservation, and they took it very seriously,” Ms. Lauffenburger said. “It was always part of the museum’s mission.”

In February, when the Walters puts its St. Francis Missal on display, the exhibit will include a[n] explanation of how the book was deconstructed and reconstructed because the binding glue had been severely damaged by bugs. [The exhibit will include a description of the treatment, which included the use of gels to lift the parchment pastedowns and the repair of the insect-damaged wooden boards using a synthetic adhesive and epoxy resin.]

The 12th-century missal’s mystique relies on St. Francis and two followers debating God’s plan for them. As the story is told, they opened the missal three times to a random spot, and in each case a passage told them to renounce earthly goods. And so the Franciscan order took root. Henry Walters acquired the work in 1913. The conservation work began in [2016] and took two years. The museum, with funding from the Mellon Foundation, hired a conservator, Cathie Magee, to work exclusively on the project. [Cathie was awarded a Mellon Fellowship at the Walters in 2016 and the focus of her fellowship was the conservation treatment of the St. Francis Missal.] Several times a month visitors could watch.

Conservators like Ms. Magee are continually working with new ways to preserve objects. “In paper conservation, they typically use a rigid gel that acts as a microchemical sponge that releases liquid and sucks up the dirt on an object,” she said. She experimented with a variant of gel that had not been used for parchment before. “This gel is flexible so it can conform to uneven surfaces, and that is good for parchment because it is rarely flat,” she said.

To read more about public conservation projects at institutions across the United States, read the full New York Times article here. To learn more about the St. Francis Missal and upcoming exhibition at the Walters Art Museum, visit the museum's website here.

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WUDPAC alumnae at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore are among the conservators featured in a new article in the New York Times.

​WUDPAC alumnae at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore are among the conservators featured in a new article in the New York Times.

11/19/2019
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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489
  • art-conservation@udel.edu