As I arrive at the Brooklyn Museum early on a Monday morning, conservators and conservators-in-training are reviewing the developments of the previous week, readying themselves for the tasks that lie ahead as they continue to research, clean, and restore objects from the museum’s extensive collection. Every corner of the lab, it seems, holds a work in progress. “We work on ten different things at one time,” comments chief conservator Lisa Bruno. That’s been business as usual here for nearly a century: The lab has been around since 1934, making it one of the oldest in the United States.
Walking through these facilities is like getting an overview of the different specialties in the field: textiles over here, ceramics over there, paintings down this way, and paper-based works in the back. Bruno is currently studying the top portion of a costume from 18th century Bolivia, created for the Morenada dance. Using a handheld X-Ray fluorescent gun—which is “like a ray gun”—Bruno was able to determine that the threads were wrapped in copper, and, further honing in, detected a tiny bit of silver plating.
One side of the costume is clearly more tarnished than the other, and she is trying to figure out if someone, at some point, tried to clean it, or if that side just got more exposed to the elements. Trying to clean it again, however, is more likely to hurt than help the object: The risk of removing the silver plating is too high, as is the chance of damaging the cardboard underneath the threads, which provides structure to the garment.
On another table nearby, an Islamic ceramic flask from the early 16th century presents far fewer treatment restrictions: Victoria Schussler, Mellon Fellow in objects conservation, is removing stains along the edges of the pottery shards, which were a reaction to the adhesives used in an earlier restoration, as well as corrosion from the metal fittings that were added to the object later, in the 19th century. “Pottery and metal don’t always play nicely together,” she notes, as she holds up one section of the object that will likely need another round of bleach, “the same kind used in teeth whiteners.”
All the way in the back of the spacious, L-shaped lab, paper conservator Elyse Driscoll has several mysterious objects covered up and weighted down, with cautionary signs on display: “ART BELOW—DO NOT MOVE.” Underneath a large sheet of paper, she reveals a flattened, torn section of papyrus. A few weeks earlier, a conservator from the Egyptian Museum of Berlin visited as part of an EU-sponsored initiative to piece together fragments of papyri from Elephantine, an island in the Nile, which were randomly scattered, landing in Berlin, at the Louvre, and at the Brooklyn Museum.
Solving this transatlantic puzzle is a test of patience: Inside a box at the Brooklyn Museum, conservators counted 502 fragments, which display the writings of at least five different scribes, and clearly belong to different manuscripts. After trying different methods to unroll the rolls, some suffered further fractures. “We ended up using a humidifier that we outfitted with a hose, so we were humidifying it locally as we opened it up. That was much more successful,” explains Driscoll. Once flattened and stabilized, the surviving pieces will hopefully come together into something that resembles a more coherent whole.
Next door, in the paintings lab, several canvases have been secured onto easels, awaiting treatment. “You want to show her George?” Bruno asks paintings conservator Lauren Bradley. “George is pretty great—it’s a big treatment,” she adds, turning back to me. The George in question is a large portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, which was commissioned by John Hancock in 1776. Bradley has been carefully removing five layers of varnish from the canvas. “It had almost every conservation varnish you can imagine. The sky had almost no blue tonality; it was really green,” she explains.
More challenges lie ahead, however. The conservator is trying to figure out why the president’s walking stick is so oddly truncated in the bottom left corner. Comparing this canvas to another version of the painting in the White House’s collection, she realized that the museum’s version is shorter, as though it’s missing a bottom portion of the composition. That, plus other peculiarities on the painting’s surface, suggest that the canvas was probably trimmed because of damage, and part of the walking stick may have been covered up during an earlier treatment. So what will be done to fix it? Conservators are trained to be a cautious lot. “The painting still has to be fully cleaned, so hopefully there’s another clue under there that will point to the right decision,” Bradley answers. “But that doesn’t always happen. So at that point, it will be a discussion with the curator…Stay tuned.”
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