From the Bench: Seattle Art Museum’s Delicate Asian Screens Rehoused for Access and Preservation

This post is part of the “From the Bench” series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, they work to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see

Nicholas Dorman, Chief Conservator, Seattle Art Museum

A busy display and scholarly research schedule in an historic museum building can pose challenges for long-term care of fragile works of art. Preserving our important collection of Asian screens and ensuring safe access to them were two critical priorities for me and my colleagues at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. We had made do with artfully cobbled-together bins and antiquated metal cabinets for a number of years but this was not suitable storage for a great and growing collection of these delicate treasures. A grant from IMLS enabled us to bring our collections-care practices to optimal standards.

Custom designed cabinets provide safe and stable storage for delicate Asian screens.

Working with a local vendor, we designed and installed a suite of screen cabinets that provide a safe and stable storage environment for the paintings. The furniture is beautifully made and will be very durable. The screens are strapped to sliding shelves within new bespoke archival boxes. The design reduces risk to the art and to the art handlers’ backs and greatly enhances safe access. Since the relative humidity can be passively managed with conditioning gel, the cabinets provide an excellent additional layer of buffering to protect the screens from environmental fluctuations. Another terrific legacy of this grant was that it gave us an opportunity to fully survey the condition of the screens. The resulting condition record and photographs will have a lasting impact as we define treatment priorities over time.

Support from IMLS was absolutely crucial for the realization of the project. It helped us to garner complementary local support and allowed us to show that the project had passed the highest-level process of review and evaluation, which was vital for the credibility of this and related storage projects. This is one of only a few programs that help museums to fund slightly less glamorous back of house development, yet it is these quiet projects that have, perhaps, the greatest impact on the works of art that we leave behind for our grandchildren to enjoy.

You can read more about our IMLS-supported screen storage project at:

and about the Seattle Art Museum’s general conservation activities at: