Conservation and Scientific Research at the Walters Art Museum
The Walters' conservation and technical research laboratory was one of the first in America. To preserve Henry Walters great gift to the people of Baltimore, the museums first board of trustees hired a restorer and a chemist in 1934. Today that laboratory is a division staffed by nine conservators and a conservation scientist (see staff). Departments include objects, book and paper, paintings, and science.
Scientific techniques and instruments can be used to look at art in a number of different ways. The lab examines what materials were used to make the art, how the art was made, or why the art is deteriorating. We work with the conservators, curators, and educators in the museum to answer questions about the artwork itself, answer questions about deterioration and aging of the art, and educate the public about science in art museums.
One of the big considerations when using scientific instrumentation to examine art is if we can examine the art without damaging it. Many scientific instruments are built or modified to be used non-invasively, which means won't take a sample from the art. Other instruments are modified to be used with a microscope, so that only tiny samples, invisible to museum-goers, are needed. Some scientific instruments are so sensitive only small samples are used, and no modification of the instrument is needed. The Walters Art Museum science lab has instruments that fall into all of these categories.
Some inquiries to the scientist are quick questions that are answered with only a few days work, other inquiries become very long and detailed research projects. Some of the questions we have recently been asked have been:
- Were the pages in this book written in the same place?
- What are the crystals growing on this vase?
- What are the typical pigments used by Thai painters?
- We know two different foundries helped cast this statue. Can we tell which parts were made by each foundry?
- We have to remove the tape that was used to hold these drawings to their mats. Can you help figure out what is in the tape?
The Walters' collection is rich in archaeological, historical, and decorative arts objects from around the world, ranging in size from tiny jewels to over life-size sculpture. The Objects Conservation Laboratory is responsible for the care of all of these objects. Book and Paper Conservation
The Book and Paper Laboratory cares for the Walters outstanding collections of rare books, manuscripts, and works of art on paper. Also under its care is the varied collection of Asian artworks on paper such as folding screen and scrolls.
Painting Conservation preserves the Walters extensive collection of paintings on wood, fabric, copper and even slate that spans the twelfth through early twentieth centuries.
In 2004, the Walters hired a scientist to form a scientific department for the first time since the original chemist left in 1937. The scientist advises on and carries out analysis for conservators and curators, collaborates on in-depth technical and analytical investigations, and carries out independent research projects.