Conservation in Action: Japanese Buddhist Sculpture in a New Light

Linsly Boyer, Evelyn Mayberger, and Abigail Hykin


Visible conservation labs have become increasingly popular in American museums, as institutions feature behind-the-scenes opportunities and access in order to increase public engagement. For over fifteen years, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) has carried out work in galleries in the form of “Conservation in Action” projects. The MFA is currently in the middle of its largest endeavor, the two-year exhibition Conservation in Action: Japanese Buddhist Sculpture in a New Light. While the treatment space in a public gallery was necessitated by logistical realities, conservators have proactively used this visibility to connect with visitors, collaborate with colleagues, and undertake new research. The MFA has one of the largest and most important collections of Japanese Buddhist sculpture outside of Japan. This project focuses on the conservation of seven large-scale wooden sculptures from the Heian period (9th-12th centuries) depicting Buddhist deities. Since 1909, a selection of Buddhist sculptures have been displayed in the Japanese Temple Room, a space designed to evoke the contemplative atmosphere of a Buddhist temple and inspired by the architecture of Hōryū-ji near Nara. The Temple Room has long been one of the most beloved spaces at the MFA; however, the gallery will be temporarily closed to make improvements to the Museum’s Asian Wing. This allows the rare opportunity for conservators to access these elaborately polychromed and gilded sculptures, many of which need urgent conservation. Conservators and conservation scientists are studying and treating the sculptures in an adjacent gallery in full view of the public. This “Conservation in Action” exhibition is a pilot project for interpretation that will inform the future reinstallation of the Japanese galleries. Museum guides are stationed at the exhibition daily to engage with the public about the project and determine what interpretive tools might be most effective. Although the Temple Room aspires to place the sculptures in an appropriate context for viewers, it does not accurately portray a complete temple environment. The conservators are working with the Interpretation and Design departments to envision what new technologies might be employed to better depict an authentic historical context for the objects (e.g. Augmented and Mixed Reality). The conservators will also seek to make documentation tools often utilized during the conservation process accessible to the public in unique ways, such as gallery didactics and social media. External collaborations, both local and international, have proved essential for this project. The Conservation in Action: Japanese Buddhist Sculpture in a New Light project is a unique opportunity for conservation to be highlighted in a public space. Conservators are able to interact directly with the public to express the importance of conservation and share new discoveries while much-needed treatment is taking place. New research stemming from the project strives to contextualize historic treatment methods and inform decision making, as the MFA looks to the future reinstallation of the Japanese galleries. The Temple Room sculptures have epitomized the reverence of Buddhist devotional figures for generations of museum guests and now, through this project, the newly-conserved sculptures will continue to inspire future visitors.

Download Full Article

2020 | Online | Volume 27