The Treatment and Reinstallation of Neo-Assyrian Northwest Palace Reliefs at the Brooklyn Museum

Victoria Schussler, Tina March, and Lisa Bruno


The Brooklyn Museum collection includes twelve monumental gypsum stone reliefs from the Northwest Palace of Ashur-nasir-pal II (883 to 859 B.C.E.), King of Assyria. Ashur-nasir-pal II chose to build his palace in the city of Kalhu, also known as Nimrud, now in Iraq’s Nineveh Province. Almost three thousand years later, Sir Austen Henry Layard, a British archaeologist, rediscovered the palace in 1840 and began excavation with British funding in 1846. Traveling through London and Boston, the reliefs arrived at the Brooklyn Museum, first on indefinite loan from The New York Historical Society in 1937 and finally acquired in 1955. Since their arrival at Brooklyn, the reliefs have been on display in various galleries throughout the Museum. When the reliefs were installed in the Kevorkian Gallery, their current location, the fragments were assembled with small brass rods and plaster and pinned to the wall. After nearly five decades on display, six of the twelve reliefs were fully conserved in 2002. Through the generous support of a Bank of America Conservation grant, the remaining six reliefs have been treated over the last two years. Because of their size, weight, and previous installation, the reliefs were documented in situ in the Kevorkian Gallery and treated in a temporary work space created in the Museum’s adjacent Egyptian Galleries. The current treatment was greatly informed by the 2001-2002 treatment, while incorporating new and newly available tools. In addition to digital photography in visible and raking light, conservators were able to document the objects before treatment with a partial multiband imaging suite including visible-induced infrared luminescence imaging to characterize Egyptian Blue. In conjunction with conventional hand tools, the use of a Compact Phoenix Nd:YAG 1064nm laser from Lynton Lasers Ltd. allowed for the sensitive reduction of non-original mortar from the reliefs’ surfaces, revealing previously obscured carving.   The two-year project proceeded in view of the Museum’s visitors, with signs encouraging visitors to ask questions, take pictures, and post to social media. Working in a gallery space imposed important limitations on treatment material choices but also afforded Brooklyn Museum’s objects conservators the opportunity to engage with the public, sharing information about the project, the field of art conservation, and the ethos of cultural heritage preservation. The need for visual consistency with the 2002 treatment of the other six reliefs in the collection created constraints on the method of the reliefs’ mounting; however, the resulting compatibility has allowed the Museum the opportunity to revisit the reliefs’ installation and interpretation in the Kevorkian Gallery, creating physical and iconographic groupings more representative of the objects’ original architectural context. In 2015, the Iraqi government announced that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, had purposefully destroyed much of the Northwest Palace site, part of a program of obliterating cultural heritage monuments in their original archaeological contexts. This type of violence makes urgent the need to support cultural heritage preservation and unfortunately timely the conservation of these Neo-Assyrian reliefs, which have endured, and will endure. 

2020 | Online | Volume 27