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.
The Costume Institute’s conservation laboratory isn’t unlike an operating room: People walk around in latex gloves, handling surgical instruments, hovering over human-sized silhouettes draped in white. There are no ink pens allowed here—only pencils—and the dirt on your shoes gets trapped on a sticky mat at the front door. Inside this controlled environment, down in the basement of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sarah Scaturro heads a team of conservators that look after a collection of over 35,000 garments and accessories, which spans seven centuries and five continents.
“We work very much on a micro scale here,” explains Scaturro, holding out an incredibly slim set of tweezers in her hands. “For example, when you’re sewing something that’s really fragile, you use hair silk—one single strand of silk. Even when a silkworm makes it, it spins two strands. We’re using half of that.”
Across the room, a monitor projects a bright, abstract composition in pinks and yellows. What looks like a thick ribbon on screen is actually a single cotton fiber, magnified under the lens of a polarized light microscope.
A few feet away, the flexible arm of a giant Leica stereo-microscope is positioned over a Paul Poiret lamé dress, ready to examine a greenish stain. The fabric’s metallic threads seem to have corroded from a liquid spill. After conversations with their colleagues in the object conservation department, the Costume Institute team tries to figure out if they can apply the same techniques used to treat corrosion in larger metal objects to those tiny strands.
Opportunities for collaboration often extend beyond the Met’s footprint as well. “We’re so lucky to be next to New York’s Garment District, and we try to utilize those resources whenever we can,” comments Scaturro. For the Met’s recent China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition, an 18th century robe à la polonaise needed a new left sleeve, which had been missing since the piece came into the collection in the 70s. While the latest, hand-painted replacement was a “valiant effort” by prior conservators, explains Scaturro, “technology has evolved, so we worked with a digital printer in the Garment District.” Under gallery lighting, which is how the conservators test all their colors, the new fabric is nearly a perfect match.
New technologies are also used to improve storage conditions for heavy, structural garments, like those from the Charles James collection. The Institute wants to revamp its current system of hangers and boxes, which can cause deformations and tearing, with custom-made forms that will provide better support. To this end, exhibition forms and the designer’s original forms are 3D-scanned, and the shapes will be carved out on a CNC machine in archival quality foam.
Meanwhile, within earshot of all this talk of digital technologies, assistant conservator Cassandra Gero quietly mends areas of insect damage on a 19th century Shaker dress. Between each stitch, she gently tugs on the silk thread, needle in hand. Some things, it seems, will never change.
View more photos from our tour of the conservation laboratory below:
Learn more about The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute here.