If you visit the Museum of Fine Arts Boston these days, you can witness conservation in action on an enormous Japanese hanging scroll, which is currently being remounted in the Asian paintings gallery. Hanabusa Itchō’s masterpiece The Death of the Historical Buddha was painted in 1713 and entered the MFA Boston’s collection in 1911. Though it was last on view in 1990, the scroll hadn’t been treated since 1850. “Usually these scrolls are remounted every 100 years or so, which is why the project was a priority,” Jacki Elgar, Head of Asian Conservation at the museum, tells The Creators Project.
As time goes on, scroll mounts can begin to fail or damage the painting, she explains—this is the most common reason for treatment. A painting might also become a candidate for remounting if the mount is inappropriate (for example, a 16th century painting that is mounted in a 20th century style), or if it was put inside a frame by a Western collector, in which case it can be returned to its original, hanging scroll format.
At 10 feet tall by 6 feet wide, Death of Buddha is the largest scroll in the MFA Boston’s collection, and conservators knew the project would take some extra sets of hands. Lucky for them, the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery is currently closed for renovations, so two of its East Asian painting conservators were able to travel north and join the effort. The MFA Boston began working on the logistics of the project three years ago, and hands-on work in the lab finally began in the spring of this year. In August, the scroll was moved to the Asian paintings gallery so the public could watch the process.
After removing dust from the surface of the painting, conservators consolidated its pigments to strengthen them and ensure none flake off. Next, they disassembled the scroll, including its dowels, silk borders, and hardware—making sure to set aside and save every last nail. Behind the painting, several layers of backing papers had to be removed. Conservators used bamboo spatulas to peel them off, and went back in with tweezers for detail work, picking away at fibers that remained tacked onto the surface.
On the bottom wooden dowel, they found a surprise inscription from past conservators, who wanted to pass on the message that the dowel was original to the painting and had been reused in their restoration. The MFA Boston conservators are doing the same—in fact, most of the original materials are being put back to use.
Aside from the old Japanese papers that lined the back of the painting, which have to be replaced, as well as the scroll’s large, outermost border of blue silk, which was reproduced by traditional weavers in Kyoto, everything is preserved and reused: the gilt metal fittings, the two innermost silk borders, and the bottom dowel’s elaborate end knobs, which are carved with mythical lions.
The most exciting day to visit was on October 19, when it came time for the tsukemawashi phase—the rejoining of all the parts. As all of the decorative silk borders are reassembled, “the painting literally grows before your eyes,” Elgar says in a video of the project, below.
Yet there is still more work to do. “Two additional paper linings will be applied to the scroll, after which it will be stretch dried on an 18-foot-long karibari drying board,” she tells The Creators Project. To see how a karibari board is made—as part of another project that one of the Smithsonian conservators worked on—click here.
Watch conservators explain the entire remounting process here:
The conservation of Death of Buddha continues in the MFA Boston galleries until January 16, 2017. To learn more about the conservators—who have all completed extensive ten-year training programs in Japan—click here.