Public Outreach in the Lunder Conservation Center

My name is Sarah Gowen, and I am a paintings conservation major in the WUDPAC class of 2012. I can hardly believe that it is July and that I will soon complete my third-year internship at the Lunder Conservation Center in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I have been at Lunder since September, and the internship has provided me a wonderful range of experiences in not only conservation treatment but also in the day-to-day responsibilities of conservators in a museum environment.

Vacuuming the surface of a painting in the Lunder Center. Image by Amber Kerr-Allison.

The Lunder Conservation Center is shared with conservators of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), which is in the same building as the American Art Museum. It has conservation studios that are separated from the public by glass walls that allow guests a behind-the-scenes view of our work. These visible work spaces present many opportunities to interact with visitors, who are often unfamiliar with conservation. As a result, one of our largest responsibilities beyond conservation projects is public outreach. Whether we are completing conservation treatments, examining works for exhibition, or preparing works for travel, we keep the public in mind. For example, most conservation treatments are completed in view from the glass walls, and we create didactics to explain the projects to our visitors. Additionally, the conservation staff provides updates on social media websites to alert guests to our projects and public programs.

Replacing framing hardware of George Catlin paintings in the Luce Center. Image by Amber Kerr-Allison.

Sometimes, our work takes us outside the glass. One such project included reframing a group of George Catlin paintings. More than 100 Catlin paintings are being prepared for loan, and nearly all of them required “upgrades” to their framing hardware. We set up tables and tools in the Luce Foundation Center (the visible storage facility of the museum) and completed the project in view of the public. This enabled us to discuss framing practices with guests while showcasing preventive conservation work. During the project, we switched out old hardware (eyelet screws and spring clips) for new (mending plates and D-rings) and explained the importance of our hardware choices. Specific information regarding framing and caring for paintings can be found on the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works webpage.

Lunder public outreach programs also include monthly conservation clinics. Visitors make an appointment to bring their privately owned artwork to Lunder for assessment and to receive conservation treatment advice from the conservation staff. The process is very similar to the conservation clinic held at Winterthur Museum. Each appointment involves examining the artwork, providing information about the art materials and the condition, and advising the owner on whether their art should be treated.

Explaining the condition of a painting to a guest during clinic. Image by Amber Kerr-Allison.

Finally, the American Art Museum and NPG staff present information in tours. Each Wednesday afternoon there is a tour of the center, and conservators often step out to discuss projects and answer questions from museum guests. It has been wonderful to participate in these tours and become more familiar with discussing my projects with the public. There are also numerous tours throughout the year when the visitors are permitted behind the glass. Examples include those for Thomas Jefferson High School chemistry students as well as the military staff from the Monuments Men Foundation.

During tours, I am often asked if I sometimes get the feeling I am being watched while I am working behind the glass. While it did take some time to get used to the feeling, I explain that it now seems second nature and I miss visitors when no one is there. There are so many benefits to the visible concept of the center as it presents fantastic opportunities for us to share our work with the public and educate visitors on our role in preserving art. I have greatly enjoyed my time here, and I suppose that is why it has seemed to pass so quickly. I look forward to returning to Winterthur in August and sharing my internship experiences!

Sarah Gowen graduated from the College of William and Mary with a degree in art history and a minor in chemistry. She particularly enjoys combining these two disciplines to clean surfaces and reduce discolored varnishes. Her main conservation projects this year have included the treatment of a large portrait and American Impressionist landscapes by John Folinsbee and John Bentley. Details on some of her projects and the work of the conservators at Lunder are provided on Facebook.

Winterthur is celebrating 60 years of graduate programs in art conservation and material culture studies in the current exhibition A Lasting Legacy: Sixty Years of Winterthur Graduate Programs, on view through June 16, 2013.

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