Art Conservators at Work: A Living Exhibit The Smithsonian American Art Museum reopens Saturday after a 6-year renovation. One new feature is an conservation lab with floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Conservators accustomed to careful, detailed and solitary work on fragile art will now have an audience.
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Art Conservators at Work: A Living Exhibit

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Art Conservators at Work: A Living Exhibit

Art Conservators at Work: A Living Exhibit

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More than six years ago, the Washington, D.C. building that houses two major art museums closed for renovation. Tomorrow, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery finally reopen. The 180-year old building now features something unprecedented in museums, a public conservation lab. You could call it an art hospital, where the museum's collections are examined, cleaned and repaired.

NPR's Alison MacAdam stopped by the lab to see how the conservators feel about working in front of an audience.


Conservation is not much of a performance. But conservators here are about to become a living exhibit. Kate Maynor is hunched over a table, her eyes pressed to a microscope. She is scraping away old paper and adhesives from a tiny fragment of a 20th Century print called Lame Man. The picture came to the museum glued to old brittle matting.

Ms. KATE MAYNOR (Smithsonian American Art Museum): You can even get a sense of that brittleness just by hearing it as I break it. It's not the kind of quality that we would use now.

MACADAM: There's nothing unusual about the work Maynor is doing, except that she is doing it in a studio with floor to ceiling glass walls. Once the museum opens, visitors can wander up here to the third floor mezzanine and see what happens to paintings, prints, sculptures and frames when they're off the wall.

Ms. ELIZABETH BROUN (Smithsonian American Art Museum): It is the first ever permanent conservation facility in a museum where the public can watch all the excitement that goes on behind the doors of the lab.

Elisabeth Broun is the director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It seems like she has been running the place forever. She certainly was eight summers ago when I was an intern at the museum. Wandering the halls then, the art felt so static. The galleries were silent as tombs. It required a little field trip for me to learn that art is alive. The interns were taken to the conservation lab, then a very private place.

Ms. BROUN: You could come in the North or South door, take the elevator up to the second floor and walk halfway around the building to the west wing and then knock on the doors that said staff only, no admittance. And then if you had an appointment, you could get in.

MCADAM: Behind those doors, a conservator showed us a painting under x-ray. You could tell the artist or someone had concealed a part of the picture by painting over it. The conservator was removing the top layer to reveal the original image. It was a privilege to see that.

I realized that day that paintings change. They breathe, they bend, they crack, and painters repaint their own work. Conservation has historically been something you don't do in the open. Michael Gallagher is the head of paintings conservation at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Mr. MICHAEL GALLAGHER (Metropolitan Museum): Many painting conservators feel that in a certain sort of way we're a necessary evil. That we're not there to be celebrated like the work of art.

MACADAM: A couple of years ago when Gallagher worked at the National Galleries of Scotland, he cleaned a painted 17-feet-wide in the middle of a gallery because it was too big to move.

Mr. GALLAGHER: In some ways I underestimated the feelings that having the public right behind me would create. We had a comment book and I think I was, I mean, I don't know, hundreds, maybe thousands of comments. There were probably two negative ones, but they're the ones I remember.

MACADAM: What did they say?

Mr. GALLAGHER: One of them said, why are you doing this? And the other one said, this is disgusting, which I think was the one that really hurt. And I just kept thinking why?

MACADAM: It could be because some people don't want to see a masterpiece dabbed with a Q-Tip.

(Soundbite of museum presentation)

MACADAM: Back at the new Lunder Conservation Center, Lunder, of course, being the name of a big-time donor, videos outside the glass wall provide background. 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 Ingall says she's a little worried about making mistakes.

Ms. HELEN INGALL (Smithsonian American Art Museum): I'm in a chorus and we have a phenomenon that we call mistake face. Which is when you go, doh, I shouldn't have sung that note. And I'm going to be guarding against mistake face.

MACADAM: In their new role as public figures, the conservators have already become muses of a sort. The museum decided they needed matching lab clothes and the celebrity designer Isaac Mizrahi took the job. He created aprons for them - a casual uniform.

Mr. ISAAC MIZRAHI (Fashion designer): I tend to think what will satisfy the problem, you know, and what will be, like, a little delicious. And I did think it would be rather delicious to see all these conservators behind this glass wall in denim.

MACADAM: Those delicious denim aprons have satin-lined sashes and deep pockets for tools. They're also a merchandising opportunity. You can buy an apron at the museum store for $85. Mizrahi thinks the public conservation lab might fit into a wider cultural trend.

Mr. MIZRAHI: Now somehow the backstage is almost more interesting for us to look at than the exhibit. I mean, I think that's so smart because I think people really want to see that.

MACADAM: In other words, it's reality TV, silent and uncut. People at the museum believe they're pioneers, that more art museums will make their conservation labs public. Museum director Elizabeth Broun stresses it's about education, not about putting on a show.

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

MACADAM: So don't expect Vaudeville, just conservators behind glass in denim.

Alison MacAdam, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: You can see the conservators' aprons and their new workspace at our website,

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