39th Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, Wednesday, June 1, “How Far Do We Go? Compensation And Mounting Choices In The Treatment Of Japanese Paintings,” Tanya Uyeda, Asian Conservation Studio, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Tanya Uyeda, conservator at the Asian Conservation Studio at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, kicked off the first BPG session of the conference with an interesting and nicely illustrated talk on the treatment decision-making challenges presented by Japanese paintings. Executed on either silk or paper, Japanese paintings are mounted onto folding screens, sliding doors, and scrolls – inherently kinetic formats that pose many conservation challenges.

The preservation of these formats is dependent on periodic remounting of the paintings. The operating assumption for Japanese paintings is that they have been mounted and re-mounted many times before entering Western collections. In order to accommodate the kinetic nature of these paintings, treatments tend to be rather invasive, requiring careful evaluation of when and how to incorporate past repairs into a structurally, aesthetically, and ethically appropriate result. Japanese paintings have often been re-mounted onto different formats; one example Uyeda shared was a pair of paintings that had originally been mounted to sliding doors and were later mounted as scrolls to facilitate exhibition. A painting’s primary support can serve as a clue to it’s original format. In this example, the sliding door paintings were on quite heavy paper, which doesn’t lend itself as well to the scroll format and can lead to structural problems when the paintings are forced to move in new ways. The decision was made to return to these paintings to their original format. Uyeda was quick to point out that changing formats always has consequences; these remounted paintings will now require new storage space.

Problems with previous repairs include mismatched colors, repair materials that are too strong for the original silk, and weak brush strokes that can diminish the aesthetics of the piece. Since curators and clients are attached to what the paintings look like, care is taken to ensure that the new treatments receive ethical treatment that is also sympathetic to the aesthetics of the object. Past mounters would compensate for losses with patches of painting silk attached to the back of the object; this repair silk wears differently than the original silk, causing both structural and aesthetic problems. The MFA currently has a limited stock of painting silk from Japan they use for loss compensation; this silk has been irradiated, which deteriorates it enough to weaken the repair fibers and achieve a better color match. They also have a stock of mounting silk for remounting scrolls. The MFA strives to choose mounting silk that is complementary to the aesthetics and the time period of the original painting. If the current mounting is appropriate, complementary, and usable, they will leave it.

The current Japanese standard for treatment of paintings is that no non-original materials remain, but the MFA takes a different approach, particularly with regard to inpainting. The ethical standard the MFA follows is not to inpaint, but just to tone the areas of loss. However, previous treatments often exhibit extensive inpainting and there are instances when the decision is made to retain these repairs.  Uyeda discussed a few examples of paintings in which the previous inpainting was reused, since to remove it would leave an unacceptable void in the painting. Traditionally, toned paper was sometimes used as a lining in order to affect the final appearance of the paintings. Uyeda showed a lovely example of a painting that, based on evidence that it had originally been lined with blue paper to create a “night sky” effect, was relined with blue toned paper in order to retain the aesthetics.

I appreciated that Uyeda highlighted the fact that the only reason most of these paintings still exist is because they have been regularly remounted and acknowledged the expectation that they will be treated again in the future. Ethical considerations of past repairs was a thread that ran through many of the talks; Uyeda’s served as a good reminder that all of the work we do exists at one point on a continuum of past and future treatments.

Q: Do they include any of this narrative about past repairs and choices about remounting on the exhibit labels?
A: No, MFA practice is to only include tombstone information on labels.

Q: When remounting hanging scrolls, do they change/replace the roller knobs?
A: They occasionally reuse the knobs if they’re in good condition, but since original knobs are often ivory and many of these pieces go out on international loan, it has become the policy of the MFA to remove the knobs prior to loans in order to avoid the difficulty of transporting ivory through customs.

39th Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, Library Collections Conservation Discussion Group, Education. Education! Education? Education. Models for Educating Library and Archives Conservators, Thursday, June 2


A big conference hall for a big topic: the education of book conservators.

The education of book conservators is a perennially debated topic, and has regained urgency with the demise of the Texas Program, previously the only program to grant an certificate of advanced studies in book and paper conservation. The current economic climate is tough for a generally perceived ‘luxury’ like conservation: many labs have suffered other budget cuts, hiring freezes, conservators with jobs are reluctant to leave them, conservators without jobs are having difficulty finding one. The funding for the training of Library and Archives conservators is one bright spot, having recently received a major boost from the Mellon Foundation by funding the establishment of pilot programs for the training of library and archives conservators in the three art conservation programs.

I was both excited and curious to see how much of this big topic could be covered in a short 1.5  hour panel discussion.

The panel discussion was lead by Marieka Kaye, Exhibits Conservator, Huntington Library, moderated by Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa, University of Delaware-Winterthur and the panel included representatives from the three art conservation programs:  Margaret Holben Ellis, New York University Institute of Fine Arts and the Morgan Library and Museum, Lois Price, the University of Delaware-Winterthur and Judy Walsh, Buffalo State.   Michelle V. Cloonan, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College included some background information.  I was taking notes during the session as fast as I could, and these pilot programs are in flux, so I apologize in advance for any errors I have likely made.

Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa introduced the participants and gave an overview of the Mellon foundation funding that allowed these new pilot programs to be established. The NYU-IFA announcement is here. The numbers are not precise, but it appears there will be 1-2 students specializing in Library and Archives conservation at each of the three institutions. Each of the three program representatives then explained what they were intending to accomplish. All of the institutional representatives emphasized their desire for input from members from the book conservation community. Since there were only 15 minutes left for discussion (out the the 90 for the session) perhaps the comments section after this post will allow a bit more extended discussion, as well as involving those unable to attend in person. Then again, maybe the somewhat permanent nature of a publicly posted comment may tend to dampen the spirits of the more argumentatively inclined AIC members!

Lois Price began her session with a nod to the Columbia and Texas programs, and acknowledged the huge responsibility in establishing a conservation program.  She outlined five strengths of the Winterthur program: a strong, established materials science component including technical analysis, an integrated/ interdiciplinary approach, support for international study, the collections of the Winterthur library with existing staff expertise, and a preventitive conservation component.  She also indicated that there will be partnerships with Simmonds and North Bennett Street School (NBSS), a bench oriented craft school with a bookbinding program.  She ended with a charge to the audience to address some problems she perceived in the mentoring of pre-program students and critical thinking skills.

Buffalo State’s three year program was represented by Judy Walsh.  Their current curriculum will not change, books and library conservation will be part of paper conservation.  There will be additional opportunities for the study of books, visiting lecturers in books and digital technologies, intercession seminars, study opportunities at Simmonds and NBSS, stipends for independent study and a new book conservation lab.  She also emphasized the interdisciplinary advantages of being able to take advantage of the knowledge of leather, or metal conservation, for example. Their goal is to graduate skilled and competent entry level Library and Archives conservators. Her charge to the field was to create more jobs and paid internship opportunities.

Peggy Ellis recounted the earlier history of the Columbia Program, mentioning how at that time the paper conservation and conservation science aspects were taught at the IFA. There will be partnerships with Palmer Library School, to learn the basics of librarianship, Columbia University Libraries Conservation Lab, for single item and special collections conservation, and the Thaw Center of the Morgan Library and Museum, which employs two book and three paper conservators.

Michelle Cloonan delved a bit into the history of library schools, then noted a number of essential competencies for a conservator, including the history of the book, the organization of the collections, preservation management, archiving and digital media, digital duration and stewardship, Audio Visual materials, and more.

Beth Doyle’s excellent post covering this same session in the  Preservation & Conservation Administration News blog (PCAN) is well work reading. All of the presenters repeatedly emphasized that this was a pilot program, and that they welcome input and discussion on how to give students the best opportunities and training. And all three commented on the close working relationship that the Mellon funding and provided. After these presentations, there was a remarkably uncontroversial, far too short Q&A session. Some of the questions and comments ranged from perceived deficiencies in the study of conservation science, frank acknowledgments of the monetary pressures libraries are facing, if a MILS is a necessary credential for a library and archives conservator, problems with not enough entry level jobs in the field, and more.  Judy Walsh had the most tweetable quip, noting the “training programs are a learners permit” for future conservators, not an end in themselves.

Unfortunately, there were no practicing book conservators on the panel, which perhaps prevented some of the questions from becoming too specific.  I outlined some of my thoughts and opinions in the 2010 Mim Watson lecture at the University of Texas, School of Information as the final guest speaker at the Texas program in a speech, titled  “A Future for Book Conservation at the End of the Mechanical Age”. From the perspective of a member of the first class from the Columbia Program in 1981, John Townsend has written a must read personal history of book conservation education. I also recommend Chela Metzger’s lecture, “Rare Skills for Rare Books: Book Conservation Education“. For a little international perspective, I recorded some more of my observations on US and UK approaches to book conservation — the comments are perhaps more illuminating than my post.

The path to becoming a book conservator has never be straightforward: we all have to be very proactive in seeking out educational pathways and professional development opportunities. Elsewhere on this AIC site there is more information about how to become a conservator, although there are, I feel, more ways that people enter into the field than is indicated. Also note there are also two major programs in the UK which attract a number of students from the US: Camberwell (London) and  West Dean College (West Sussex). The session ended quietly and I was left feeling that these programs were well conceived, competently directed, and sincere in the desire to provide the best possible education for future book conservators. I would be interested in hearing more specifics about the differences between the intended programs, which would help prospective students choose the best fit.

I was also left wondering a bit about the role of the student. Most conservators I highly respect have come from a variety of training schemes — their commonalities may have more to do with their own autodidactic study and commitment to professional development, not to mention inherent ability and generally wide ranging interests– than from what corse of training they initially embarked upon. Will future students — perhaps ones who have grown up without books — be attracted to such a narrow field, if given a choice of dealing with wide ranging objects, for example?

If conservation is based on the tripartite skill set of  SCIENCE-CRAFT-HISTORY, I worry that we are relying too heavily on science, and there is not enough emphisis on the others. Let us not underestimate the importance of this divorcing of the book conservation and craft, from its long term home in the library. Book conservation has been a bit late to be invited to the table with other conservation disciplines for a variety of reasons, some to do with the functional nature (until recently!) of books, their ubiquitousness, and their closeness to bookbinding as a craft. And I would argue that this last aspect, the close relation of bookbinding to its craft origins, may be at risk.  The structure of the codex, because it is one of the most perfect technological inventions, has been remarkably stable for the past 2,000 years.  The history and techniques are reflected and embodied in the books, and also through the traditional methods of disseminating craft knowledge, generally by close personal contact with skilled practitioners.  I maintain that this living tradition of craft knowledge needs to be preserved just as the books themselves are preserved.