Stories of Success: A Collaborative Survey Shines Fresh Light on Korean Paintings

This post is part of the “From the Bench series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, part artisan, part caretaker, a conservator works 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

By Katherine Holbrow, Head of Conservation, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA

Shared expertise plays an essential role in good collections care. In Spring 2012, valuable support from IMLS enabled the Asian Art Museum to bring together an interdisciplinary team of experts to carry out a conservation survey of rare Korean paintings.

Korean paintings conservator Chi-sun Park and her assistant, Eun-Hye Cho, of Jung-Jae Conservation Center in Seoul, Korea, collaborated with Asian Art Museum conservators, curators, and translators to examine hanging scrolls, albums, and screens dating from the 14th to 19thcenturies. The team examined each painting, then identified conservation and curatorial priorities, evaluated scroll and album mounts, and discussed treatment alternatives.

Left to right: Asian Art Museum director Jay Xu, visiting conservator Chi-Sun Park, associate curator Hyonjeong Kim Han, and paintings conservator Shiho Sasaki discuss a Joseon dynasty painting.
Did you know that due to a tradition of under-floor heating, Korean folding screens typically have feet? Above, Chi-sun Park examines a Korean painting mounted as a folding screen. The mount uses a mixture of Korean and Japanese elements.

The project quickly grew beyond an assessment of treatment needs, sparking stimulating discussions of the broader ethical and aesthetic questions that surround the remounting of Korean paintings, including the following:

  • What characteristics do Korean mounts share with Chinese or Japanese mounts?
  • What elements are unique to Korea?
  • How can the mounts help tell the history of our paintings?

 Good conservation decisions require a cultural sensitivity to fine detail and a clear grasp of such abstract questions, even if there is more than one right answer!

This lively debate, along with explanations of common types of scroll damage, strategies to extend the life of a painting mount, and repair options, was shared with senior docents and museum visitors in publications, tours, and lectures. Read more about the Korean paintings project on the Asian Art Museum website.