Since early artists began drawing charcoal animals in French caves during the Stone Age, art conservation has been an important tool in preserving artwork and maintaining a piece’s visual representation for years to come, to the extent that the practice of conservation has in itself become a form of art.
Hood Museum deputy director Juliette Bianco said that while some pieces on display may have been cleaned in the past, none of the pieces have been restored. Some of the pieces that the museum owns, however, such as a Greek Panathenaic vase, were restored before the museum acquired them.
She said that the museum does not currently have the staff and equipment necessary for a fully-functioning conservation department that restores works on-site. The museum, however, uses a variety of methods to protect the art from damage over time. Bianco said that the museum’s approach to conservation is largely preventive since there has not yet been a need for an extensive restoration of the works in the museum’s collection.
Hood Museum intern Laura Dorn ’15 said that like many other museums, the Hood’s curators regularly rotate which works are on display for audiences to regulate the amount of light exposure so that paintings, drawings, photographs and prints are kept at an optimal level of exposure.
In addition to rotating which pieces are exhibited, the Hood Museum staff takes extra precautions to prevent any accidental damage by viewers. Upon entering the museum, visitors are asked to leave their bags near the reception area along with any pens they might have. Only pencils are allowed for those who want to jot down a few notes as they observe the artwork, since pencil marks are easier to remove than those from pens.
Bianco said that protecting pieces from the weather is a major component of the museum’s conservation practices.
“We maintain a stable environment for the collection by controlling the temperature and humidity and providing safe storage to prevent the deterioration of objects,” she said.
In addition to weather damage, there are other areas of concern. Dorn said that staff members overlay prints on acid-free archival paper to prevent any acid damage while on display.
“Conservation is a huge part of the museum’s practice,” Dorn said. “They have records for every piece.”
While the Hood Museum’s direct approach to conservation coincides with an emphasis in the prevention of any damage, when it comes to restoring older works that have a layer of dirt and grime on top or tending to small cracks in sculptures, the Hood Museum staff looks to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The WACC serves over 50 art museums in the New England region as a part of its consortium with academic institutions. The Hood Museum uses four of the WACC’s departments to preserve its pieces, including the paintings department.
The WACC’s conservator of paintings Sandra Webber said that the paintings department employs innovative technology such as analytic imaging and scientific analysis to treat a wide range of materials, including acrylics, water-based paint, wall murals and frescoes.
“The approaches, techniques and materials used vary widely depending on the nature and condition of the objects,” she said.
In addition to the paintings department, the Hood uses the WACC’s department of paper and photograph conservation to preserve scrolls, screens, watercolors and engravings and the objects department to preserve textiles and pieces made out of metal, plaster, bone or leather.
Though furniture pieces are rare at the Hood, there have been instances when staff members had to contact the WACC’s department of furniture and wood objects for the treatment of wooden artifacts such as picture frames, historical toys and signs, as well as any architectural woodwork and outdoor wood sculptures.
In order to preserve a piece’s look and artistic integrity, a great amount of detail and care must be put into the maintenance and restoration of the art, Dorn said. Rather than adjusting a painting or print’s color saturation or brightness level as if it were being edited in Photoshop, art conservators focus on removing the visual impurities that detract from the artist’s intended presentation. Whether evidence of the restoration should or should not be visible for viewers is determined by the circumstances underlying the need for restoration as well as the museum staff’s desire to showcase the restoration as a part of the artwork’s history moving forward.
If work features markings from historical events such as a war, Dorn said, they should not be removed in a restoration because they are a testament to the piece’s survival and story.
“I think the way a conservator approaches a piece depends on the history of the object and where the damage came from,” Dorn said.
Bianco said that age is not the only determinant for which pieces need to be cleaned, since 20th century outdoor bronze sculptures, for example, need to be waxed every few years to maintain the balanced look of the material.
One of the College’s largest restoration projects was in 1989, when Mexican artist Jose Clemente Orozco’s famed mural “The Epic of American Civilization” (1934) was restored during a two-week process after years of grime and mineral salts built up on its surface.
Hood Museum senior curator Katherine Hart could not be reached for comment by press time.