Conservation Station

For many, the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the word ‘conservation’ is environmental conservation, particularly at Newfields which is home to 152 acres of habitat that supports wildlife and the community, but what most people outside of the museum world may not think of is the conservation of our art collection. Both areas of conservation have the same overarching goal, to maintain a vibrant Newfields for current and future generations by being good stewards of our campus, finances, and collection, and both have been at the heart of Newfields for generations. The Indianapolis Museum of Art has maintained an in-house Conservation Department for decades, dating well back into the last century. Still, many members and guests are not familiar with the Conservation Department and the breadth of its responsibilities. What the heck does an art conservator do at the Museum? Read on to find out! 


The Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields collection is filled with many different kinds of art—paintings, artwork on paper, costumes and textiles, sculpture, decorative arts, and much more, all of which potentially may need treatment by an art conservator. The primary function of the Museum Conservation Department is to maintain the collection in good condition, both physically and in appearance, for as long as possible. 


This is accomplished via a two-pronged approach. One is taking various measures that address evident damage and deterioration of collection material. They include repair of structural damage, reduction of dirt/grime, removal of discolored coatings, elimination of foreign matter, neutralization of chemical degradation, judicious replacement of missing elements, and other steps towards restoration of proper appearance. 


The second strategy is to implement policies and practices to minimize future deterioration and encourage preservation of the collection. You may be familiar with some of these policies as we all play an important role in preserving the art, like not taking flash photography, not carrying large bags or backpacks, and not touching artwork. Other examples include maintaining appropriate environmental conditions within the museum, evaluating and selecting proper methods and materials to use for display and storage, and following protocols to minimize indoor pest populations and their possible impact on the collection. 


When actual hands-on conservation treatment of art and artifacts occur, the Conservation staff does not just dive right in, full steam ahead, to save the collection from ultimate demise! It is a very deliberate process, beginning with a thorough examination, for the purpose of: 

a) determining how the artwork was created; 

b) full assessment and documentation of condition; 

c) identifying the reasons for existing damage or active deterioration; 

d) proposing a course of conservation treatment to achieve the best long-term results. 


If this sounds a lot like what happens when a person becomes ill and visits a physician, you can understand why conservators sometimes are referred to as 'the art doctors." Healthy art is happy art! 


There are times when a great deal more information is sought about the nature and artwork, beyond what is accomplished during a standard detailed examination. When there is such a need, a conservation technical study can be undertaken, towards gaining as much data as possible utilizing various tools of science, in compliment to conservation expertise and art historical connoisseurship. For instance, identification of specific materials or artist techniques can help to place an object in art historical context and affirm a geographic or cultural association. Technical study can sometimes play a critical role in supporting artist attribution or possible date of origin. Newfields is extremely fortunate to maintain a science lab in the Museum, which was recently endowed by Sarah and John Lechleiter, and with additional support from Annis Foundation, and have a full-time  Conservation Scientist. The Science Lab is equipped with a range of analytical instruments far beyond what exists at most museums, uniquely facilitating high-end research and technical study of artwork at the IMA. 


On a regular, routine basis, various activities are undertaken by conservators to care for the items in the Museum. Actual conservation treatment of art and artifacts is the primary responsibility of the conservators on staff. Structural repair work, cleaning, and aesthetic compensation regularly involve the use of adhesives, molding, casting and filling materials, solutions, solvents, and paints. Some commercial products are acceptable according to conservation standards, but often conservators will make these supplies themselves in the Labs, mixing dry and wet chemicals, natural and synthetic resins, and pigments, to produce custom made adhesives, varnishes, paints and other treatment supplies. According to modern conservation ethics, the materials and procedures of treatment must permit reversibility without danger to the artwork. Throughout the process of conservation, the intent of the artist/craftsperson must be in mind, so that after treatment the art/artifact maintains integrity of meaning and appearance, to the best of historic knowledge and conservation practice. Alas, if Van Gogh could speak to us now! Anyone up for a séance? 


In addition to direct treatment, various regular ongoing activities are undertaken by conservators to care for the items in the Museum. Examination of collection objects is done by the conservators to assess suitability for safe display here at Newfields and for loan to other museums around the world. Climate monitoring is conducted, using instruments to measure and log temperature, relative humidity, and light level conditions within exhibition galleries and art storage areas. These tasks are accomplished working in tandem with the Museum Curators, Collection Support (Installation), Design, and Exhibitions staff, Facilities Department, and other personnel. 


The IMA Conservation Department is housed within a 7,700-square-foot suite that includes separate laboratories for the disciplines of paintings, paper, textiles, and objects conservation. The 3,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Conservation Science Laboratory is located in a separate area of the Museum. 


The Conservation Department currently is staffed by 5 conservators who hold master's degrees in the profession, and two full-time conservation technicians. The Conservation Science Laboratory is directed by a PhD-awarded scientist specializing in the analysis and care of artwork. 


Stay tuned! There's more to come in future issues of this publication about the Conservation staff, their profession, and interesting conservation projects, past, present, and future! 

Hendrick Mattens after Raphael, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (tapestry) (detail), about 1630. Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, The Clowes Collection, 2016.372.