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Student Blog: Objects Conservation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Wooden statue of a man in a robe. The statue is old, and is missing its hands.

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Standing Buddha after treatment. (Image by Olav Bjornerud.)​

​One of the reasons I decided to specialize in objects at WUDPAC was because “objects" is hardly a specialization at all. Objects come in a virtually infinite number of shapes and sizes, they can be made of any material, have any function, and be from any time. While no museum's collection can represent the full spectrum of objects, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I am spending the year in the Department of Objects Conservation, comes close. Under the guidance of Conservators Daniel Hausdorf and Pascale Patris, I am working on a range of exciting projects centered on objects made from wood. The two projects I will share show that even when the impossibly (and wonderfully) broad specialization of “objects" is narrowed, there can still be great variety.

One of my first projects at The Met was treating a 9th-century Buddha sculpture from Japan whose right foot had cleanly detached near the ankle. Examination revealed that the detached piece from the right foot, as well as the still-attached front portion of the left foot, were not original to the figure. The feet on carved figures like this one were commonly replaced because the orientation of the wood's grain makes those areas inherently weak. Tenons on the soles of The Met's figure's feet slot into mortises in a boxy pedestal—if the figure is tipped forward on its pedestal, the weak areas of the feet are stressed.

​To begin my treatment, I used gel poultices to soften the old glue residues so they could be more easily cleared away. After a discussion with Daniel, we decided the metal rods inserted into the tenons for mounting should be removed because they may have further weakened the figure's feet. I removed the rods and filled the holes they left behind with cus​tom dowels I made out of pine, a wood with characteristics similar to the softwood the figure was carved from. To reattach the foot piece, I used a glue made from fish collagen that I bulked with small resin spheres. This mixture formed a strong bond but also filled the gap between the pieces being joined. Finally, I used the same fish glue, this time mixed with cellulose powder that I toasted until it darkened to a tone similar to that of the figure, to hide the superficial gap between the figure and the foot piece.​

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Detail of the wooden statue. The foot is missing and a clamp is put in place in preparation for putting the missing piece back in place.

​​Standing Buddha, early 9th century. Detail of damaged foot. (Image by Olav Bjornerud.)​​

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A student sit in front of a wooden horse, and uses magnifying glasses and a small scalpel to take a tiny piece of paint from the scupture.

​Olav taking a sample from the carousel horse. (Image by Pascale Patris.)​

​I have also joined Pascale on a long-term project she has been working on; an investigation of the coatings on an American wooden carousel horse from the golden age of carousels. Carousel figures from the late 19th and early 20th-centuries were finely carved and lavishly painted. Horses or other animals from the outermost circle of figures on the carousel—like the horse in The Met's collection—were especially extravagant. As functional objects, these figures were frequently repainted as coatings were worn away. Together, Pascale and I have taken dozens of samples from across the surface of the horse and examined them under the microscope. We are using these samples, each like a tiny, colorful slice of lasagna, to reconstruct how the horse's paint scheme has changed over time. Our work is ongoing as we begin to make sense of the horse's complicated history.

I have learned a lot from these two projects, and I look forward to continuing to deepen my knowledge and develop my skills with more projects to come!​

— Olav Bjornerud​, WUDPAC Class of 2023

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A wooden carousel horse sits inside a conservation lab, waiting for analysis.

​Outside Row Standing Horse, ca. 1914. (Image by Olav Bjornerud.)​

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Close-up photo of a piece of paint from the carousel horse. Six layers of paint are visible, with small amounts of gold applied over the top layer.

​Cross-sectional sample taken from the carousel horse’s sword element. This area was most recently painted with a metallic aluminum paint. The dark band between the brown and salmon-colored layers is varnish. (Image by Pascale Patris and Olav Bjornerud.)​

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Class of 2023 Fellow Olav Bjornerud enjoys the broad and varied nature of objects conservation. His internship at the Met has included stabilizing a 9th-century Japanese sculpture and studying the coatings on a 20th-century carousel horse.
 
 
12/11/2022
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