In Photos: The Art of Conservation at the Straus Center

By Lotem L. Loeb
By Lotem L. Loeb

Updated April 3, 2024, at 3:10 p.m.

On the top floors of the Harvard Art Museums at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, a dedicated team of conservators care for approximately 250,000 pieces in the museum’s collections. In this photo essay, Crimson photographer Lotem L. Loeb goes behind the scenes at the conservation labs, documenting the meticulous preservation work and the stories of the staff specialists.

In the Objects Lab, conservation junior fellow Madison A. Conliffe uses acetone to clean Jean Baptiste Carpeaux’s painted plaster sculpture from 1870, “Why Born a Slave!”

Deeper into the Objects Lab, associate conservator of objects and sculpture Nicole D. Ledoux treats a disassembled Greek bell krater. To conserve this piece, Ledoux takes apart the vessel in order to remove the deteriorated restoration adhesive and plaster. Once apart, each fragment is cleaned individually in preparation for reassembly.

On the other side of the lab, objects conservation fellow Adrienne M. Gendron treats a Greek amphora. She remarks on the difficulty of color-matching the black glaze on the piece, which was used as a storage jar around 570–550 B.C.E.

In the luminous Paintings Lab, associate frames conservator Allison Jackson measures the frame for a painting on loan. She often shapes available frames to snugly fit the beautiful paintings on display.

Pivoting to the back of the lab, associate paintings conservator Ellen Davis brings out an elegant Edvard Munch painting, “The Lonely Ones.” This painting is the eighth of the Harvard Art Museum’s Munch collection – the largest outside Oslo, one of his primary residences.

Using a flashlight, Davis illuminates a portion of the painting’s varnish from a previous treatment. The current cleaning focuses on removing this varnish to honor Munch’s request and restore the painting’s integrity.

Jackson stands beside a historically accurate frame for a Jankel Adler painting, seen tied to a shelf in the back left. As acquisitions often change hands and frames, her role is to decipher what the original framing may have been and find something akin.

The Analytical Lab on the fourth floor of the building houses various pigments for analysis.

Working closely with Davis, Celia S. Chari, a postgraduate fellow in conservation science, explains the microscopy and digital report of paint and varnish analysis on Munch’s piece. Chari typically utilizes fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy and Raman analysis to assemble her report and inform conservators of possible treatment practices.

In the fifth floor Paper Lab, assistant paper conservator Abby D. Schleicher holds a piece from the Solomon Collection: a Jan Saenredam engraving on paper from 1600 titled “Allegory of the Triumph of the Netherlands over Spain.” She flips over the engraving in preparation for treatment, soon to use the paper weights in the background to stably secure the piece.

Schleicher carefully removes adhesive with the help of a scalpel.

On the other side of the paper lab, Lucille Bonnier, an intern in photograph conservation from France, begins to inspect an Anselm Kiefer mixed media on gelatin silver photograph from 1981 under the microscope. Her study focuses on the identification of painted media in order to understand the artist’s work and make conservation recommendations adapted to it.

Nearly 100 years after it was founded in 1928, the methods and technology of the Straus Center may have evolved, but its mission of conservation remains the same.

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