Exhibition Conservation

Melissa’s main project at the National Museum of Asian Art was to fill the role of the lead exhibitions conservator for the planning and installation of the following show:

Figure 1. Screenshot advertisement of the exhibition from the FS website following the COVID-19 museum closure

The exhibition plan included two collection objects: a Coromandel Chinese lacquer screen and a Chinese hardwood daybed both from the 17th century. Here are some of the responsibilities from being a conservator in the exhibition process:

  • Research the deterioration risks for Asian lacquer
  • Attending all exhibition and individual planning meetings for the exhibit
  • Meeting and dialoguing with curators, exhibit designers, graphic designers, mountmakers, photographers, conservators, and security experts from the museum
  • Interpreting CAD designs and floor plans
  • Answering questions regarding light level requirements (An updated policy on lighting in the galleries was recently released, which placed lacquer in a higher sensitivity level and limits exposure to 50 lux for 6 months every 10 years)
  • Working with designers and security experts to insure adequate measures to prevent intentional and unintentional guest interaction with the objects (deck height, deck distance from the object, railings, and alarms)
  • Working with conservators to estimate treatment times and incorporate this into the overall exhibition timeline (to insure ample time for mountmaking, photography, graphic design that incorporates the photography, and final installation)
Figure 2. An annotated photograph of the 12 panels of the Coromandel screen. The red squares were identified as treatment priorities by the curator based on the imagery that might need to be photographed

Conservation Treatment

Under the guidance of objects conservator, Ellen Chase, Melissa assisted in the treatment of the screens. There was a pressing timeline to insure the screens were stabilized prior to installation activities, and Melissa’s background in objects conservation made her a suitable technician for the work. The screens had been carefully documented and a treatment plan had already been created. Melissa completed the stabilization treatment of one of screens, which involved the following:

  • Assessing surface stability of the screen by examination with a stereomicroscope while testing the surface response with a blunt bamboo skewer.
  • Applying dilute B72 (~5%) in acetone to consolidate unstable pigment (after assessing possible saturation in discrete areas)
  • Creating a small fill for the lacquer at the base of the object that was at risk for snagging and creating further damage during handling and installation (1:1 calcium carbonate and kaolonite with lamp black pigment and 30% B72 in acetone, and final reintegration with Golden’s acrylic paint).
Figure 3. Melissa consolidating areas of the screen under a microscope. (Source: Ellen Chase)

COVID-19 Interruption

The exhibition was slated for an April 2020 opening, but the schedule was interrupted by the COVID-19 crisis and enforced closure of Smithsonian Museums. Initially, FS staff was planning on a delayed opening, which was instigated by an inability of couriers from South Korea to help with the deinstallation of the gallery where the exhibit was going, however, the prolonged closure prevented the exhibition team from identifying a new exhibition opening and closing date during the remainder of Melissa’s internship.