The Lunder Conservation Center at SAAM

  • CLAIRE LARKIN: What you see when you come to the Lunder Conservation Center is very special and very unique. Most museums of art do have conservation labs, but typically they’re hidden away somewhere behind the scenes.

    HELEN INGALLS: Museumgoers before might have heard of conservation, but it would have just been some lab somewhere in the non-public space.

    CL: We decided to do something really revolutionary and make it a feature of what you’d see here.

    HI: Now, the average visitor to the museum, who may not even know about conservation will be able to see people doing the work that they’ve heard of.

    JULIE HEATH: Well, the Lunder Center is comprised of five labs, where we work on objects, paintings, inpainting, paper, and frames.

    HUGH SHOCKEY: Sometimes you become very intimate with a piece and you get to know it and you discover things about it that the casual observer might not notice.

    ANN CREAGER: The portrait of the man with the curly, white wig is from the 1750s, and he has had a very rough life. He’s got big tears. What will be done in this case, all of the discolored varnishes will be taken off and the dirt layers, which are interlayered. The painting will then be revarnished with a synthetic varnish, easily removable in the future. The losses will be filled, each little, tiny loss, will be filled with a gesso, so that the losses are the same level as the rest of the painting. Then each of those little, tiny losses will be filled, inpainted, with an easily removable palette of colors.

    CL: Conservators today make sure that whatever they do to an object, an art object, can be undone by somebody else in the future. So, all the work that they do is reversible. All of the work that they do is very carefully documented as well so that people in the future can go back to their records and know what they’ve done to the object. The idea being that, in the future, there will be techniques and there will be equipment that will be very different from today. Maybe there’ll be a better technique, a better way of conserving the object in the future.

    HI: I think seeing works of art behind the scenes may be like seeing actors before they come out on a stage. I’m not quite sure, but maybe getting into the makeup part of the theatre might be a little bit like seeing a work of art kind of without its face on.

    CL: Artwork is an expression of our culture. It’s a record of who we are, really, and that’s why it’s so important to keep these things stable and in good condition for generations to come.

    At the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Lunder Conservation Center, visitors have the unique opportunity to see conservators at work in five different laboratories and studios. The Center features floor-to-ceiling glass walls that allow the public to view all aspects of conservation work--work that is traditionally done behind the scenes at other museums and conservation centers.

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