In the last decade, museums have had to embrace the kind of institutional transparency that social media encourages, taking us behind the scenes as they research, treat, and install the works of art in their collection. The internet is filled with short videos, some far better produced than others, that offer quick glimpses at the magic of conservation, with its state-of-the-art scientific tools and potentially dramatic before and after effects. As this column has developed over the last few months, I've spent many a paragraph trying to bring to life some of that magic—but with some conservation methods, seeing is believing. Here is a compilation of some of the most edifying footage on the topic, totaling 38 minutes and 48 seconds.
This beautifully shot video from The Metropolitan Museum of Art takes you through the eight-step process of restoring an enormous 17th-century family portrait, from varnish removal to restretching and retouching. “When the painting came into the studio,” begins painting conservator Michael Gallagher, “I was aware it was going to be time-consuming, but perhaps not the ten months it has taken.” Aside from scale, part of the challenge was treating major damage that stretched horizontally across the top of the canvas, where it had previously been folded and nailed onto a smaller stretcher. (And if you find, in watching this, that the dramatic effects of varnish removal are particularly satisfying to witness, check out this video of a canvas cleaning from the Art Institute of Chicago.)
Conservation and restoration are often used interchangeably, but the latter is really just a part of the former. Aside from restoration treatments, museum conservators undertake a very broad range of activities, including preventive treatments, storage design, and materials research. In this 3-minute video from the Victoria and Albert Museum, conservator Susan Catcher travels to South Korea to visit the workshop of master paper maker Jang Seong Woo, whose hanji papers have many applications in the field of conservation (in addition to being the primary material in several pieces from the museum’s collection).
In 2007, four bronze lamps from 250-100 B.C. were discovered in a rock-cut pit on the site of Vani, an ancient region located today in the Republic of Georgia. In collaboration with the Georgian National Museum, the Getty Museum studied and treated two of the lamps, which were heavily corroded but incredibly well-preserved. The best part of the video—a timelapse of conservators chipping away at corroded areas with wooden sticks, brushes, and scalpels—begins right before the two-minute mark.
Lonesome George, the last known survivor of the tortoise species Chelonoidis abingdoni (or Pinta Island tortoise), died in 2012 in the Galapagos Islands. For years, scientists trying to preserve the species made countless attempts to get the solitary tortoise to mate, all of which proved unsuccessful. He finally conceded, mating with two females towards the end of his life, but tragically, all of the resulting eggs failed to hatch. In this video from the American Museum of Natural History, scientists and a taxidermist describe the process of preserving the famous turtle, whose remains were returned to Ecuador after being treated and exhibited in New York.
When I first learned that paper conservators treated some drawings and manuscripts by submerging them in water, I didn’t quite believe it—assuming that any extensive contact with liquids spelled disaster for paper and ink. This video from the Morgan Library & Museum dispels those misconceptions. While it clearly has a lower production value than some of the others in this list, watching Charles Dickens’ original handwriting being confidently dunked into a bath is pretty mind-blowing. The real action starts around 1:40.
Last but not least, this 17-minute documentary short from the Tate starts off with high drama, recounting the vandalization of Rothko’s Black on Maroon in October 2012. Following the incident, conservators were filmed for the 18 months it took to study and restore the painting. Rothko’s materials and techniques—and the vandal’s tagging in permanent ink—were recreated on test canvases, which were placed inside an “environmental accelerated aging chamber” to match the state of the original painting. Once the correct cleaning methods were identified, the paint surface could be restored. The 1958 canvas was put back on view in 2014.
For extra credit, explore other conservation videos from the Met, the V&A, and the Getty Museum. And if you’re still itching for more, MoMA and LACMA also have a number of fascinating videos on the topic.