AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Objects and Research and Technical Studies Joint Session, May 9, “The Qero Project: Conservation and Science Collaboration over Time,” by Emily Kaplan et al.

Emily Kaplan (Presenter), Objects Conservator, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian; email:

Ellen Howe, Conservator, Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation, Metropolitan Museum of Art; email:

Ellen Pearlstein, Associate Professor, Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials, UCLA; email:

Judith Levinson, Director of Conservation, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History; email:

The qero research project is a seventeen-year-long collaboration among object conservators at four museums with qeros in their collections: the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA), and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (SI, NMAI). Emily Kaplan (SI, NMAI) presented an update of the research to date on behalf of her co-investigators, Ellen Howe (MMA), Ellen Pearlstein (formerly Brooklyn Museum, now GCI-UCLA), and Judith Levinson (AMNH). The project is an in-depth technical study of materials and techniques of fabrication of a corpus of qeros, polychrome wood drinking vessels fabricated around the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru in 1532; the qeros in these four collections date from the Inca period (13th-15th c.), through the Colonial period (16th-19th c).  Consequently, the qeros offer material culture insights produced over a span of centuries and reflect the influences of both indigenous cultures and Spanish colonizers.  Principal goals of the project involved: understanding techniques of fabrication, the analytical identification of materials, and the correlation of the technical data with the stylistic data proposed by others (i.e. curators, art historians).

The qero project was an apt presentation for the joint OSG-RATS  session. Kaplan articulately presented the cultural history of the vessels, as well as the technical research undertaken by numerous conservation scientists, principally at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Indeed, both cultural and scientific research were presented in nearly equal measure, which underscored the efforts of the primary researchers to cover both aspects in depth.  Efforts at replication of techniques of manufacture, cultural exchanges with colleagues and artisans in Peru, and the application of the full arsenal of analytical  methods employed (including FTIR, GC-MS, PLM, XRD, and XRF) were discussed.  Kaplan noted that YouTube videos exist showing contemporary Columbian artisans in Pasto working with the sheets of resin.  The presentation was accompanied by quite beautifully photographed images of the vessels themselves, comprised of tropical woods with polychrome resinous inlays, which illustrate geometric (Inca) and figural (Colonial) design registers of increasing complexity.

Funding from the MMA and NMAI allowed Kaplan and Howe to travel to Peru to meet Andean artists and scholars; to collect raw materials; and to visit private and public collections.  Eventually botanical samples of the plant elaeagia were correlated via FTIR and GC-MS to the mopa-mopa resin noted in early literature and the samples from qeros.  Interestingly, the palette was identified as largely unchanged from the pre-Colonial period.  Colorants identified include cinnabar red, orpiment yellow, cochineal red and pink, indigo blue, copper-based greens, carbon black, lead white and titanium white.  A notable, recent reassessment is the meaning of the analytical identification of titanium white (cristobalite anatase in mineral form) on some vessels.  Early in the project, the noted presence of titanium white—a  pigment that found wide usage only in the 20th century—was  thought to indicate areas of restoration.  Further study focusing on the presence of elaeagia in the media, led the conservators to believe it to be a pre-Colonial pigment.  A known Andean ore does exist.

Current research questions involve study of the ore source(s) of the cristobalite anatase and pigment comparisons to Colonial Andean paintings.  Further, the research and data collection evolved with technological advances and the collaborators are now considering ways to aggregate and share the data on-line.

This research project can be seen as a model for other conservation projects involving multiple institutions.  The sustained curiosity about these objects inspired a prolonged inter-museum collaborative effort , involving international allied professionals.  I’ve followed the progress of the qero project over the years, attending presentations and watching the list of publications in the US and South America grow longer and longer, as new findings emerged.  Near the beginning of the project (which started in 1995), while a graduate conservation student at New York University, I participated for two years as a research assistant on the project.  The concerted efforts to study both historical techniques of fabrication and the scientific results of analytical testing represent for me why the qero project ideally embodies the captivating interdisciplinary aspects of the conservation profession.

One thought on “AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Objects and Research and Technical Studies Joint Session, May 9, “The Qero Project: Conservation and Science Collaboration over Time,” by Emily Kaplan et al.”

  1. Dear Stephanie,

    I am currently in my third year studying Conservation and am carrying out research for my dissertation. I have decided to write my paper on the aging of Barniz de Pasto. As there is so little written about it I was wondering if you might be able to direct me to some useful links? I am particularly interested in the natural and synthetic pigments used in the technique today and also the chemical compostion of the resin itself. In info at all would be a great help! Thanks for your time.

    Sian Pirnie

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