From the Bench: Conservation Effort Opens View of Tiffany Window Designs

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

By Marina Ruiz Molina, Assistant Conservator and Marjorie Shelley, Conservator in Charge

Fairchild Center for Works on Paper and Photograph Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds a collection of over four hundred drawings from the workshops of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933). They include preparatory sketches and presentation designs for windows, interiors, lights, mosaics, and other decorative works. The collection offered a formidable challenge, when it was acquired by museum in 1967 as it had previously sustained considerable water damage that resulted in extensive mold growth. The damage was so severe that these drawings could not be exhibited or properly studied because they posed a health hazard for the researchers, and the aesthetic and structural disfiguration was too critical.

In 2010, we received a generous grant from IMLS to conserve a group of 65 of these pieces, all of them designs for stained glass windows. This grant has given us the opportunity to investigate, treat, and rehouse these drawings, thus making them accessible to the public and shedding new light on the process of designing stained glass windows.

Tiffany window design revealed by recent conservation work.

One of the most exciting aspects of our work as the paper conservators in charge of this project has been accessing for the first time “hidden” pieces of information that had remained concealed for many years, covered under layers of dirt, mold, or even original presentation elements, such as mat windows. While detaching some of the mat windows during the conservation process, we found inscriptions that revealed relevant facts, such as the location of unknown windows, the identification of depicted figures, or the names of the commissioners.

Most importantly, we had the opportunity to better understand the imaginative practices devised by the designers who worked under Mr. Tiffany’s supervision in order to maximize the productivity of their creative work. Scientific and technical study of these multilayered, extremely complex objects has allowed us to confirm how these men and women often employed devises such as painted photographs, tracing techniques, and collaged cutouts to reutilize their own existing designs. As a whole, this collection of drawings reveals a fascinating and inventive array of designers’ tools — a turn-of-the-century predecessor of Photoshop!

Visitors to the American Wing of our museum can for the first time admire these delicate drawings, many of which are beautiful works of art on their own right.

For more information, visit