In the never-ending quest to reach out to new audiences, museums are always looking for ways to spice up visitor experiences. And while after-hours gatherings and dedicated Instagram experiences continue to take off, several museums are opting for a more-sedate approach:
Watching paint dry. Literally.
Art restoration, long relegated to sequestered, out-of-the-way labs, is going public in areas set up to be viewed and, sometimes, interacted with. The term for it in museum circles is “open conservation.”
Promising transparency in practices, open conservation is intended to engage museumgoers on a deeper level.
The projects are gaining attention, from the live, multimedia-supported restoration of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to this year’s new, open conservation lab at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
The Lunder Conservation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., was one of the first to open a visible conservation center, doing so more than 13 years ago.
“It’s not just the painting on the wall or the sculpture you can’t touch,” explained Amber Kerr, the chief of conservation at the museum. “It’s an inlet into the complexity of the art world. We talk about X-rays, unique gadgets that look at art in a unique way. It’s not something you need a higher art knowledge to appreciate.”
The museum’s programming has grown to include tours, workshops focusing on topics like the effects of climate change on artwork and activities targeting youngsters.
“We’re getting this heightened awareness that these things are fragile and that they can disappear,” Kerr said. “People are seeing the responsibility of preserving cultural heritage. They want to know what goes into it.”
Conservation buffs would do well to visit the Conservation Center in Chicago, where 40 conservators work on everything from paintings and paper to furniture in a 35,000-square-foot facility housed in a 19th-century warehouse.
“A lot of our conservators have been here for a very long time, and are incredibly passionate about what they do,” said Heather Becker, the facility’s chief executive. “They’re able to share and express what it means to be in the field, and speak to the mission of saving and preserving cultural items that are precious to people.”
Works change regularly, and can range from ancient masterpieces to family heirlooms. Currently work is being done on a 17th-century screen from Chinese Emperor Quianlong.
“Every time you come to visit the facility, you’ll see something completely different,” Becker said.
Veiwing the process
The Penn Museum in Philadelphia, home to archaeological and anthropological-centered collections from around the world, puts conservation efforts on display through the Artifact Lab. Opened in 2012, the glass-enclosed space allows visitors to view the conservators at work and, twice a day, converse with them about their projects.
“We literally open a window between the lab and the visitor area,” explained Lynn Grant, head conservator at the museum. “We tend to try to make it more of a dialogue with the visitors than a lecture.”
This year, conservators are focused on objects destined for the museum’s soon-to-be renovated Egyptian galleries.
The Dallas Museum of Art allows visitors to view a paintings conservator at work, alongside a gallery exhibition detailing conservation research, which includes key findings from various conservation projects.
The current exhibit is centered around an African helmet mask. On display are CT scans that were taken of the mask, along with information detailing the materials found beneath the mask’s surface.
“It’s a little bit of forensic science, a little bit of chemistry,” said Fran Baas, interim chief conservator. “We all love to investigate and discover things. Everybody likes ‘CSI,’ right?”