Below the strategically designed exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) lies a conservation student’s paradise: the Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation. I had the privilege of taking a personal tour of the objects conservation lab with Associate Conservator Anne Grady on October 28th, 2017. As a prospective conservator, the inside look at the conservation lab was both exciting and enlightening. Each work station had a unique object in the process of being conserved. Objects ranged from an antique piano, to a Buddha statue, to stained glass windows, to a sarcophagus, to British couches and chairs. The stained glass window had been disassembled for cleaning and repair. The sarcophagus was being analyzed in order to reinforce weak areas and subsequently be returned to the Egyptian Wing for display. The furniture was being cleaned and prepared for display in the new British exhibit, which is set to open in 2019.
Ms. Grady was extremely knowledgeable and willing to share her personal stories and passion for conservation. She began the tour by discussing the broad history of conservation and how she became a conservator. Ms. Grady graciously shared an enlightening story from her fellowship time at the Met. She spent one year analyzing and conserving an 8’x4’ piece of wrought iron art that had previously been in storage. During the first two months, she analyzed the paint. She took cross-sections of the paint and determined that there were eight layers of paint. Before she could proceed with the conservation, she and a group of conservators and curators gathered to determine an appropriate course of action. As a group, they had to determine which color paint they preferred on the surface for the exhibit. They had to consider the context in which the object would be shown and they had to acknowledge that each paint color represented a piece of that object’s history. Each decision regarding the conservation of an object involves an ethical decision, especially when the work to be done is irreversible. Is it better to conserve an object and extend its life or let it decay as the artist had anticipated?
During the tour, Ms. Grady also mentioned how the conservators manage “difficult heritage” objects. She personally had not worked with any objects from indigenous peoples. She did mention that the conservator assigned to indigenous peoples’ objects consults the respective indigenous peoples whenever possible. This process ensures that appropriate conservation methods are utilized. When Ms. Grady mentioned consulting with indigenous peoples, I recalled a story that I previously shared on Twitter about the Smithsonian Institution collaborating with the Alaskan Tlingit tribe to create a replica of their sacred killer whale hat. It was comforting to know that the MMA takes appropriate measures when conserving indigenous peoples’ objects. Ms. Grady compared it to contacting an artist when they conserve that artist’s piece since their insight is extremely valuable to the conservation process. The most surprising element of my observation was when Ms. Grady informed the group that the Native American art had only recently been moved into the American Wing of the MMA. It had previously been displayed in the Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas Wing. The transition seemed a bit overdue and made me ponder as to why it had not always been displayed in the American Wing. I recalled the article “Is ‘Difficult Heritage’ Still ‘Difficult’?” where Sharon Macdonald discussed how museum exhibits can shape public memory of past atrocities. Macdonald stated that the “relatively durable physical crystallizations of particular ways of regarding the past provide a lens into what is deemed worthy of such effort” (2015, 7). Exhibiting Native American art in any wing other than the American Wing of the MMA is denying that Native American culture is American. Macdonald considered the acknowledgement of difficult heritage as progress for aggressor countries. Therefore, I believe that Macdonald would view the recent relocation of the Native American art as a positive development in United States history.
I thoroughly enjoyed my tour of the objects conservation lab and aspire to return as a conservator in the future. The observation reinforced my desire to become a conservator and afforded me the opportunity to see the type of setting in which I could feasibly pursue my career. Ms. Grady also mentioned that the majority of conservators currently working at the MMA are white females from the northeast. Much like the libraries studied in Jennifer Vinopal’s article “The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing: From Awareness to Action,” the conservation department at the MMA lacks diversity (2016). Fortunately, this fuels my pursuit of a career as a conservator and only inspires me to continue my quest.
Macdonald, Sharon. 2015. “Is ‘difficult heritage’ still difficult?” Museum International 67: 6-22.
Solly, Meilan. 2017. “This Replica of a Tlingit Killer Whale Hat Is Spurring Dialogue About Digitization.” Smithsonian.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/replica-tlingit-killer-whale-hat-spurring-dialogue-about-digitization-180964483/.
Vinopal, Jennifer. 2016. “The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing: From Awareness to Action.” Lead Pipe. http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2016/quest-for-diversity.
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