Keeping Up Appearances

Two Harvard centers work to ensure the future of the University's collections

A large drapery hangs from the entrance of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, detailing the evolution of Harvard’s art museums throughout the decades. One word, printed in thick, black letters, spreads out across the center: transformation. The word serves as a harbinger, a visible indicator of the drastic changes that have and will continue to transform the arts at Harvard.

Yet despite this push for reform—the most recent form of which is the renovation of the Fogg Art Museum—a significant amount of work goes into keeping one thing from ever changing in Harvard’s art world–the artwork itself. Beyond the glass encasements of the Sackler’s most treasured pieces and the miles of cluttered stacks that inundate Widener, Lamont, and Harvard’s many other libraries stand two centers in charge of ensuring that these objects are preserved: the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies and the Weissman Preservation Center. Although the technicians at these two Centers play a behind-the-scenes role, their use of ever-developing technologies to preserve the works of the past are integral to the creation and maintenance of Harvard’s world-renowned literary and artistic collections.


Since it’s introduction in the 1920s, art conservation at Harvard has come a long way, and it has helped damaged pieces of art extend their display shelf lifetimes. Edward Waldo Forbes (Class of 1895), who served as the second director of the Fogg from 1909 to 1944, worked laboriously to create and expand the Center for Conservation and Technical Studies—the first of its kind in the United States. He spearheaded the use of x-rays to analyze and authenticate the Fogg Museum’s expanding art collection, and he appropriately called the Fogg a “laboratory for art history.”

Today, the Center for Conservation and Technical Studies has become the Straus Center for Conservation, in honor of long time benefactors Lynn and Philip A. Straus ’36. It continues to pioneer novel methods of conservation, which it then describes in its own journal. The Straus Center provides analysis and treatment for the over 150,000 objects, from all times and places, throughout Harvard’s museums and grounds.

“Our primary mission is to preserve the collection,” says Henry Lie ’72, Director of the Straus Center. “We have to make sure that it doesn’t deteriorate. There are some things that will deteriorate, there are some that may never deteriorate, so there is a lot of variety there but you try to do as well as an institution can.”

Currently, the Straus Center is making groundbreaking progress, using new techniques to repair five pieces from a mural cycle sent by Mark Rothko to Harvard in the 1960s. The murals, which were one of only three made, were displayed for almost a quarter of a century in the penthouse of the Holyoke Center. But overexposure to sun on this light-sensitive paint caused the mural’s color to dramatically change—the vivid crimsons turned into tepid blues. As a result, these pieces are now displayed only once every decade.

Although many thought Rothko’s murals were irreparably damaged, Senior Conservation Scientist at the Straus Center Narayan Khandekar asserts that progress is currently being made on their preservation.

“We are currently conducting an investigation into understanding the mechanism of the pigments and how they fade,” Khandekar says. “And we are also looking at ways of using projected light to compensate for that lost color so that the murals can one day be redisplayed [permanently].”

As a state-of-the-art institution, the Straus Center’s conservation efforts have reached beyond this campus’ grounds. Along with pieces of art from Harvard’s own collection, the Straus Center has worked on preserving seventeen paintings from Piet Mondrian’s Transatlantic series, an altarpiece created by Bartholomäus Bruyn during the 15th century brought in from Germany, and the enormous wall murals that decorate the Boston Public Library by John Singer Sargeant. Lie claims that the conservation of the Sargeant murals has been one of Center’s most exciting tasks under his tenure.

“It was a very big project that gave us a chance to do significant work and to present the work we were doing and the sheer size of it all to the Boston public through webcam,” Lie says. “I’d say that is one of the most interesting projects we’ve done.”


Though the restoration process of the Sargeant murals was made accessible to the public through video footage, the results often remain carefully protected from spectators for fear of further harm. Yet for the technicians at the Weissman Preservation Center–who preserve books, paper and photography–their efforts extend beyond physical restoration. Stabilizing these delicate books and images to a state where they can be readily accessed and distributed throughout the Harvard community is one of the Center’s primary aims.

“This is all about access; it is not about making things beautiful and hoarding them,” says Jan Merrill-Oldham, Malloy-Rabinowitz Preservation Librarian. “Its about finding ways to get this material to people. A very common scenario is for us to assess objects, to treat them, for cataloguers to improve bibliographic records so that those objects can be found by researches and then to digitize them at a very high quality so that materials are made available worldwide.”

Much like a rare object on display at the Sackler, the Weissman Preservation Center is housed in a glass encasement on 90 Mt. Auburn Street, where curious commuters can observe a small group of scientists at work.

But book preservation at Harvard had much humbler beginnings. The history of library conservation at Harvard University dates back to the 18th century, when Harvard’s library employed a single bookbinder. Though the Weissman Preservation Center has considerably expanded conservation efforts, it continues to operate on goals set by Charles William Eliot, Harvard’s 24th president.

“The care of libraries belonging to the University is one of the chief responsibilities of the Corporation,” Eliot said in 1873. “A great collection of books, like a museum of natural history or archaeology, is not only to be made useful to present generations, it is also to be transmitted safely to future generations.”

Today, hunched over their desks on the top floor of the Center, over 20 technicians painstakingly scrutinize objects from Harvard University Libraries. On any given day, these conservators treat century-old letters by John Keats, various posters from the 1920s Ballet Russe, Egyptian images from the 19th century, and some of the first daguerreotypes ever made of the moon in 1851–often only a few inches from their faces.

Technicians at the Weissman Preservation Center do not simply attempt to reverse the effects of time by both scientifically and artistically restoring objects to their original states. Unlike with paintings and sculpture, the nature of the print medium allows technicians to consider to a greater extent the history of both the material’s production and use. Merrill-Oldham asserts that every technician is in constant consultation with curators to ensure the history of these rare objects –as long as no further deterioration is caused–is preserved.

“We’ve had posters that were torn down from buildings during the Boxer Rebellion,” Merrill-Oldham says. “The backs of these things are plaster. Plaster is an alkaline so it’s not going to deteriorate the object. You’re not going to take it away to try and make something pretty and new. You’re not going to hide that. We could make tremendously accurate facsimiles of such objects, but why would we? The goal isn’t to pretend it’s a new thing that hasn’t been used. Just how much are we going to treat here? When it comes to the original you want them to tell the story.”

The fact that all the work done on the objects is reversible is a testament to the Weissman Center’s attention to protecting the pieces’ transformation with time–whether good or bad.

Book Conservation Technician Carly Weggeland, working with large sheets of Chinese etchings from the 19th century, was applying thin sheets of remoistenable tissue, which could be attached and reattached by adding water, to the damaged portions of the etching.

“We want most of the repairs that we do in this lab to be reversible,” Weggeland says. “There is a great amount of damage that has been caused by previous treatments that cause really big problems for us. Turning back the clock on many repairs is part of our life.”


While conservators at both Centers work behind-the-scenes, the physical conditions of the space that houses the art also play a critical role in ensuring the stability of these pieces, one of the reasons that the Fogg is currently undergoing major changes.

The importance of creating an effective vehicle for the display of art is not at all unique to Harvard. And when updating a museum’s look, similar issues to those faced when working to conserve a piece of art’s original integrity must be confronted.

At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston this is the balance that is currently being navigated. Acclaimed architect Renzo Piano—designer of the Center Pompidou in Paris, the Whitney Museum of Art in New York and the renovation of the Fogg Museum—recently received approval to commence expansion of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The renovation proposal had posed a unique challenge for the Museum. Isabella Stewart Gardner, who established the Museum in 1903, stipulated that the Museum must remain in the condition it was in at the time of her death, and if any changes were made the entire collection would be given to Harvard. But last week, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts filed a Memorandum and Judgment ruling that the proposed renovation and expansion of the Museum abides by Gardener’s desire to create a “Museum for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.”

“The entirety of our museum is an artwork, so we have to be careful with our crowds and accommodating our visitors. The expansion allows for preservation in that sense, in keeping the integrity of the whole of the museum space,” says Anna Lowi, Director of Marketing Communications. “The new space will allow us to promote our accessibility to a greater number of scholars and students and visitors, those are things that allow us to conserve on a holistic level.”

The current renovation of the Fogg Art Museum, which led to the temporary relocation of the Straus Center to a laboratory in Somerville, will similarly enhance the Fogg Museum’s infrastructure and preserve its historic façade. Improving the quality of the facilities that exhibit Harvard’s invaluable collections will also help to better preserve the works themselves.

“Preservation, collections care, and conservation will be immeasurably improved by the renovation of the 32 Quincy Street building,” says Associate Conservator of Objects and Sculpture Angela Chang in an email. “State-of-the-art climate control and art storage will positively impact every object in our collection.”


Although Harvard has always deeply cared for its collections, Merrill-Oldham says that within the last decade, the University has made many essential changes towards improving the quality of book preservation.

“Harvard has taken up the mantle of its responsibility to these collections. Not that they weren’t cared for over the course of all those decades and centuries that went before,” says Merrill-Oldham, “but we did turn a corner in terms of really organizing to get work done, setting our priorities, choosing from among these materials, and putting together a staff that has exactly the kinds of skills that the Harvard collections require. There is a big difference between serendipity and planned work when you talk about broad impact.”

The University’s commitment to conservation has far-reaching ramifications. The preservation efforts of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies and the Weissman Preservation Center are helping to shape the future of academia.

“It is world history. It’s all that there is. It’s the tangible evidence of the past,” says Merill-Oldham of the material she preserves. “So yes, it’s important to you, it’s important to me, and it’s important to those who have access to the Harvard collection.”

“But it’s also of worldwide importance,” she continues. “It tells the world story and not just for our generation but for generations to come. And it’s in that spirit that we need to treat that material. We need to do things in a way to ensure that in another three hundred years, or another six hundred years from now, someone can continue to consult this object.”

Lie reiterates this sentiment, extending the impact of conservation to world social culture as a whole.

“We have a national and a world culture that needs to be defined and honored and enjoyed by people,” says Lie. “By conserving we are dealing with our culture’s patrimony and that of other nations in an intelligent way because, ultimately, that is really what defines us as a civilization.”