Obscured By The Fogg

Harvard's Hidden Treasures And Their Preservation

For students rushing hectically to a Fine Arts class, the Fogg Art Museum often seems like nothing more than another passageway between lecture halls. Adorned with priceless objets'd'art perhaps, but still a passageway. For the approximately 2,000 visitors it entertains on a given weekend, the Fogg probably seems like nothing more than another museum. Impressive for a college collection, perhaps, but still only an MFA in miniature.

But both the students and the tourists never see most of the Fogg's collection, nor do they usually realize its contributions as a teaching instrument and center for the conservation and restoration of a vast amount of artwork.

In the last three years the museum, under the directorship of Seymour Slive, has moved into an ever-closer association with the teaching process. A permanent gallery operates in cooperation with Fine Arts 13, "Introduction to the History of Art," changing its exhibits weekly to coincide with the course's various themes. Curators of the museum like John Rosenfield and Konrad Oberhuber teach Harvard courses, and the museum hosts a myriad of seminars, employing the extensive reserves of material in its collections. The Fogg's use as an instructional facility is "on a par with Fitzwilliam at Cambridge (England), the Ashmolean at Oxford, and Yale and Princeton's museums," Rosenfield, Curator of Oriental Art, said last week. But he added that the Fogg uses its collection "far more intensively" in teaching. "We increase the link insofar as is commensurate with preserving the collection," Rosenfield said.

The Fogg's artwork "provides an opportunity for aesthetic experience and...scholarly research," Konrad Oberhuber, Curator of Drawings, said last week. Yet the museum suffers from a chronic lack of space, keeping 90 per cent or more of the collection squirrelled away on storage shelves. While scholars have access to this material, most students never have an opportunity to work with the bulk of the collection. In addition, the museum must at times turn down gifts of art work that might prove valuable to students because of space constraints. Although the number of donations to the museum varies each year, with as much as 100 pieces of artwork given in some years, the overcrowding stays constant. Although these space inadequacies have spurred a drive to raise money for a new wing, the museum has raised only $3 million toward a goal of $15 million.

Huge empty frames line the building's 4th floor hall and masterpieces wrapped in plastic are stuffed in almost every spare room. The corridors of a Fogg storage room are filled with old display cases, statuettes and a few works under consideration for acquisition, such as a Chinese stone tomb figure of the 10th century. Behind a huge, sliding metal door, guarded only by a small padlock, plastic-clothed Buddhas and glazed Chinese tomb figures occupy dusty shelves, a Japanese scroll with a painted vision of countless heavenly hordes hangs on one of the walls, and a shiny brass head that once served as the handle of a ritual Tibetan bell rests on a table. "A man we know found it in Nepal," Rosenfield said. He added that the Fogg bought the object from him because of its "Chinese-influenced style." These and similar objects remain tucked away in the Fogg basement.

Yet, while the Fogg worries publicly about money and space, the traditional museum's work--that of conserving great art for future generations--continues with less recognition. The much-decried "materialism" of the 20th century, which has largely transformed art works into investment risks, has also inspired significant improvement in the technological means of conserving and repairing works of art.

Arthur Beale, Conservator of the Fogg, is constantly beset with urgent phone messages about paintings, Botsettis (delicate gilded clay figures) and other treasures needing attention. Beale supervises a staff of 1 conservator scientist, 6 professional conservators, an administrative assistant and 6 apprentices or interns. Science serves Art in the four laboratories on the fourth floor of the Fogg. In rooms filled with jars of chemicals and glues, equipped with machines like an infra-red spectrophotometer, Beale's crew works to preserve the Fogg's treasures.

The Conservation department performs two types of restoration: structural and aesthetic. Structural restoration involves a thorough overhaul of a piece of artwork in a seriously decayed state, while aesthetic restoration generally involves only minor facelifts to improve the appearance and beauty of the object.

If the Fogg is loaning a drawing to another museum, the lab may veto the deal if the work is not "stable," Beale said. As an example, Beale describes what might occur if an unfixed pastel, with pigments unbounded to paper, was transported from the building. One smudge would destroy a priceless picture, he said.

If the lab does allow a painting to travel for any significant distance, they might replace its glass shield with plexiglass, using a special filtering plexiglass to protect water-colors from fading in strong sunlight. The technicians would coat sculpture with a plastic varnish to protect it from scratches in transport.

Major structural repairs are made only when the museum plans to move an object a substantial distance, or if the work faces excessive exposure to such destructive atmospheric conditions as dampness, heat or light. However, people are often more detrimental than the atmosphere. Apart from the obvious dangers of mishandling, simply touching a work can damage it, Beale said. Fingerprints do not merely detract from the appearance of a painting but they can literally destroy it. The oil from fingerprints attracts dust and salt that eats away surfaces.

When a painting is not in imminent danger of blistering or cracking or a major sculptural flaw does not develop or a drawing does not need treatment to halt sliding in the mat, then aesthetic considerations assume primary concern, Beale said. Yellow varnish may discolor a painting and invite a cleaning job.

But these two categories of conservation are never far removed from one another. Beale explained that even though a painting may sometimes look bad but remain structurally sound, varnish eventually cracks paint and causes structural damage, in addition to offending the aesthete's eye.

In the Objects Lab, a Greek vessel lies on its side on a sponge cushion. Dipping a Q-tip in a solution an assistant removes old paint used to cover earlier retouching, exposing the crack-mending in the process. The slow and tricky work is necessitated solely by changed aesthetic tastes. Formerly, conservators could use new paint to "restore" a lost section of a picture without invoking the wrath of purists. Now, Beale said, the emphasis on presenting just the original, even when that causes gaps in a pattern.

In a corner a bronze Etruscan mirror, probably deliberately broken in antiquity, according to Beale, awaits repair. The glue formerly used to piece it together has dried out, but the new plastic adhesives used in its place won't relinquish its hold so fast.

"Preventive medicine--that's what we try to use primarily these days," Beale said. Yet the Fogg's collection is so large that attention, out of necessity, is focused primarily on works about to go on exhibit. Transporting these objects often raises as many problems as, say, refinishing or mending them, he added. Special cases are designed to protect against bumps and the atmosphere. Yet the preventives, like their medical counterparts, often have unexpected side effects. Black rubber, which is often used to cushion picture frames from handling shocks in transit, tarnishes the metal. An experiment with a copper dish and this "dark enemy" goes on under a glass cover in a corner. And the lauded modern plastic adhesives, though stabler than old synthetics, tend to deteriorate in Ultra-Violet light. Bronze or some other chemically sensitive material is often transported in molded polystyrene, for protection. Chemistry. That is the keywork in the conservator's lab. Bottles and bottles of the most modern "poisons" crowd the shelves above ancient masterpieces. One wonders what the original artists would make of it all.

The contrast between antiquity and modernity is less startling in the Drawing Lab, where works on the whole are made with much more recent material. Drawings on paper only began around the 14th century. Before that they were done on vellum, as in illuminated manuscripts. One of the chief problems posed by the care of modern drawings (since the 19th century) carries the ominous title of "communicable acid degeneration." Apparently, half-way through the 1800's, when people began cutting down trees instead of using old rags to make paper, the cardboard used to back drawings acquired a highly acid quality. And, like similarly-titled habits of illegal amusement, the degeneration spreads from one member of the team to another as the cardboard contaminates the drawings.

In preparation for this summer's Masterpiece Exhibition, he Painting Lab is cleaning a Courbet on loan. "By removing old, yellowed varnish," Beale said, the painting "not only looks fresher but the perspective actually changes a little." But the painting will also need structural repairs. For example, the work suffers from what Beale, in all seriousness, called "a cleavage here in the middle" where the paint is cracking and in danger of flaking off. A few tiny white flecks illustrate where this process has already occurred.

The terrible condition of a painting often stems from the old, rotting canvas behind it. Transferring the paint onto new canvas is such a difficult task that it is only undertaken in extreme cases. Usually a second canvas is waxed onto the original one to strengthen it. The painting is placed on a heat table, where the second canvas is adhered to it.

Amidst all this science, the conservators still become enthusiastic over the artistic results of their chemical technology and NASA-like machinery. One might become calloused into viewing the paintings as mere flat surfaces in need of care before they are carried off to line walls or hang from rack after rack in a storage room with only inches to spare between them. But a woman restoring a Bouchet portrait of a court lady instead remarks: "These pieces were added to the rectangular original to turn it into an oval...rather lovely isn't it?"