In art institutions across the globe, time machines and investigation rooms exist behind closed doors. Dusty artworks go in and come out looking centuries younger; artists’ secrets are brought to light; and hidden, unfinished images emerge from behind famous compositions. Every week, we'll peek beneath the microscope and zoom in on the art of preservation, where art meets science and just a little bit of magic: this is Conservation Lab.
You can’t go wrong inviting a conservator to a dinner party—they have great stories. They take CT scans of mummified fetuses, expose art historical cover-ups, and resurrect dead languages. Best of all, they get to actually lay a hand (or at the very least, a cotton swab or tiny brush) on masterpieces that the rest of us accident-prone mortals are rightfully asked to keep a distance from. This hands-on work can easily yield a few surprises, and often these are minor—an unusual pigment, an unexpected metal composite. Once in awhile, though, picking an object apart can reveal something else entirely, concealed inside like an Easter egg.
Conservators at the Natural History Museum of London knew for some time that the giant sunfish in the collection would need to be treated: The ten-foot-tall creature’s stitched-up body was bursting at the seams, exposing the wheat straw that had been stuffed inside over a century ago. The fish was collected in Sydney Harbour by the zoologist Edward Ramsay on December 12, 1882, brought to London in 1883 for the International Fisheries Exhibition, and donated afterward to the museum. Given its weight, “they probably didn’t want to take it home again,” speculates senior conservator Lu Allington-Jones in a radio interview.
In addition to 25 trash bags’ worth of straw, Allington-Jones and his team extracted all kinds of odds and ends that had been weighing down the fish: iron bars, floorboards, a broken chair from 1883, and a scrap of newspaper from the Sydney Morning Herald, dated January 26 of that year. The newspaper was crumpled up, but being conservators, they humidified and flattened it out. One article seems to be about the first-ever Ashes cricket tournament between Australia and England: “We hope the match will be played throughout in a spirit of generous rivalry, and that the struggle for the much coveted laurel will be a close and exciting one,” reads the Herald.
At the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, an object originating from another former British colony was also found to contain a time capsule of sorts. The wooden panel holding together a painting of Krishna from 19th-century Thanjavur, India, was deteriorating due to insect damage and causing cracks in the paint layer. Conservators decided to remount the painting onto a more stable support, and as they released the painting from the panel, they found a full page from The Times of London, dated Wednesday, April 29, 1857. The articles of the day ran a wide gamut—a report of an insurrection in Sarawak was published alongside discussion on Charlotte Brontë. And the discoveries did not end there: Attached to the wooden panel was another sheet of paper, displaying English-language penmanship practice as well as handwriting in a South Indian language.
And lastly, while some discoveries may not make the news, they do make someone’s day. Nancy Kraft, Head of Preservation and Conservation at the University of Iowa Libraries, told us as much when discussing the hidden gems that can be found inside a book’s spine. Binders occasionally repurposed scraps of paper—for example, unused pages from other books produced by the bindery—to use as the liners that stiffen a book’s spine. “Finding these is not frequent but we do come across them from time to time,” shares the conservator. “It’s one of the little rewards in our job.”