When the Whatcom Museum curatorial team recently wanted to have several artworks cleaned and assessed for stability to exhibit and possibly go on tour, they turned to art conservator Lisa Duncan.
Thoroughly assessing an artwork’s general condition is an essential part of preparing for any exhibition. It is especially important for a touring exhibition that can last years.
While a registrar or collections curator performs the initial assessment, it may be necessary to call in an art conservator if artwork seems especially fragile, damaged, or soiled.
Duncan, based in Seattle, has years of experience in the art conservation field. So, what do art conservators do? Here, she offers some insight.
Duncan holds a Master of Science in art conservation from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. She is also a Professional Associate of the American Institute of Conservation.
She says many art conservators arrive at the career from one of three paths: chemistry (science), art history, or studio art. For her, it was science.
After graduating with a bachelor’s in chemistry from Occidental College in 2002, Duncan says she was trying to figure out what she wanted to do.
“I wasn’t feeling the normal chemistry path,” she recalls. “I kept circling back around to my other interest, art.”
Her first job in art conservation came in 2005 in Salt Lake City. Working as a conservation technician at the J Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah, Duncan helped conserve newspapers.
Now, 15 years later, Duncan continues to conserve works on paper.
The American Institute for Conservation describes art conservation as “the profession that melds art with science to preserve cultural material for the future.”
Duncan says conservators often specialize in a specific area. Common classes of specialization include books and paper, photographic materials, wooden artifacts, paintings, textiles, and more.
Her specialization is the consultation, treatment, and assessment of photographic materials and works on paper.
She says she gravitated toward specializing in paper because she was interested in photography growing up.
“Photography and paper tend to travel together because they are both usually paper based,” she explains.
With conservation, Duncan says the aim is to improve the condition of a piece without altering it. That means stabilizing physical problems and fixing surface damage in a way that maintains as much original material as possible.
“With conservation, most of your thoughts are about stabilizing the piece for the future,” she says. “You want to make the piece last into the next lifetime.”
With restoration, Duncan says sometimes material must be replaced so a piece more closely resembles how it looked when it was produced.
She describes preservation as being more about the bigger picture. It involves taking steps to prevent damage and reduce deterioration.
The art conservation process
The amount of time spent on each piece varies based on the extent of damage.
Duncan says her process involves an initial assessment and condition report, then a proposal for the work. She says an assessment, photographs, proposal, and the work itself usually runs between five and 10 hours.
Treatment can involve washing, cleaning, and mending works.
“Sometimes all I have to do is clean photographs with erasers,” she says. “Others need to be washed and bleached and taken off the mount. That could be a 20-hour treatment.”
Treatment protocols are specific to each piece of art because there are so many factors.
For example, only certain media can be washed. In general, washing paper involves bathing it in different waters, such as distilled water or chemically treated water. If it can’t be washed, she says she’ll use tools to work on sections.
If an artwork is set to be on view, she says she’ll often mend tears or holes. Whenever possible, she says conservators add materials that can be removed if needed.
Damage can often be the result of storage. Duncan says works stored in basements or attics will often have water stains. Works stored in a high-humidity environment may have brown spots, known as foxing. Stains such as these can be removed using conservation-quality bleaches.
Another common problem is flaking. With watercolors, for example, Duncan says some artists apply thick coats of paint to the paper’s surface. That tends to increase flaking.
“We have to essentially figure out how to glue those flakes into place,” she says. “It’s necessary so the artwork can travel and be on view.”
Pastels are another challenge because they are friable. That means the media is fragile and can start to fall away.
“You can’t wash them. Sometimes you can’t even touch them,” she says of these fragile works. “Storage and display are difficult.”
To see how fragile a work is, Duncan will often test the media to see if she can pick up any pigment with a dry brush. That helps determine how carefully the painting needs to be handled.
Work like Duncan’s is important for the Museum as we prepare several works to go out on long-term loan. Some works will eventually head to the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of a collaborative exhibition to share important works of American art.
The first phase of this five-year partnership with the Smithsonian is on view through the end of the year in our exhibition Conversations Between Collections.