© 2024 Connecticut Public

FCC Public Inspection Files:
WPKT · WRLI-FM · WEDW-FM · Public Files Contact
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Art Conservators at Work: A Living Exhibit

Paper conservator Kate Maynor scrapes old paper and adhesive off a fragment of a print at the Lunder Conservation Center in Washington, D.C.
Alison MacAdam, NPR
Paper conservator Kate Maynor scrapes old paper and adhesive off a fragment of a print at the Lunder Conservation Center in Washington, D.C.

Art conservation isn't much of a performance, but conservators in Washington, D.C., are about to become a living exhibit.

Six-and-a-half years ago, the building housing the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery closed its doors for renovation. The 180-year-old building reopens to the public Saturday and now features something unprecedented in American museums: a public conservation lab.

You could call it the art hospital -- a place to examine, clean and repair the museum's collections.

On a recent visit, Kate Maynor hunched over a table, her eyes pressed to a microscope. She was scraping away old paper and adhesive from a tiny fragment of a 20th-century print called "Lame Man" by African-American modernist William Johnson. The picture came to the museum glued to old, brittle matting.

There was nothing unusual about Maynor's task, except that she was at work in a studio with floor-to-ceiling glass walls.

Once the museum building opens, visitors will be able wander up to the third-floor mezzanine to the Lunder Conservation Center and see what happens to paintings, prints, sculptures and frames when they're off the wall.

Elisabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, says the center is the first-ever, permanent conservation facility in a museum, where "the public can watch all of the excitement that goes on behind the doors of the lab."

Videos outside the glass wall provide background on the craft. Inside the glass, the conservators say they're not sure yet how they'll feel about doing their work in public.

There is a shade they can pull down, if absolutely necessary. Object conservator Helen Ingalls says she's worried about making mistakes and will be guarding against what she calls her "mistake face."

Broun stresses the conservation lab is about education and not about putting on a show.

"It's not magic. It's hard work, serious study, based on science, experiment with techniques, procedures and materials," she says. "It shouldn't be presented as magic. And we're not performers."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stand up for civility

This news story is funded in large part by Connecticut Public’s Members — listeners, viewers, and readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

We hope their support inspires you to donate so that we can continue telling stories that inform, educate, and inspire you and your neighbors. As a community-supported public media service, Connecticut Public has relied on donor support for more than 50 years.

Your donation today will allow us to continue this work on your behalf. Give today at any amount and join the 50,000 members who are building a better—and more civil—Connecticut to live, work, and play.