Conservation in Action: Japanese Buddhist Sculptures, September 2020

Conservation and Collections Management

Conservators have recently returned to the project after several months away as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the conservation studio remains closed to visitors, the collaborative work begun in the spring has been completed and can be shared digitally.

Visitors had frequently inquired about the original appearance of the Temple Room sculptures and were often surprised to learn about the vibrancy of the original color palette. To illustrate this more clearly, conservators decided to undertake a digital color recreation of the elaborately decorated Bishamonten, the Guardian of the North. Alongside curatorial staff, conservators worked with Brandeis University student Jalon Kimes to combine information garnered from scientific analysis and microscopic examination to create an informed digital color recreation on a 3D model. The recreation is accompanied by a “confidence heat index,” meant to convey the relative certainty of the appearance in the different areas of the model.

Digital color recreation and confidence heat index of the Bishamonten sculpture
At left, the digital color recreation approximating Bishamonten’s original appearance; at right, the confidence heat index with a range of red to blue representing high to low confidence in the colors.
The Bishamonten sculpture as it appears today
Bishamonten as it appears today.

In collaboration with Formlabs, a 3D printing company based in Somerville, Massachusetts, a 3D printed replica of Dainichi, the Buddha of Infinite Illumination, was created this past spring. It was intended to be manipulated as a 3D puzzle by visitors, to allow the public to learn about the sculpture's joined woodblock (yosegi zukuri) construction. Direct interaction will not be possible for the moment, but conservators have recorded the video below demonstrating assembly of the sixteen separate parts, which were determined after close examination and X-radiographs of the sculpture.

During closure, conservators presented virtually on the project to conservation graduate students at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, as well as to attendees at the 48th Annual Conference of the American Institute for Conservation. Although the conservation studio is not among the galleries reopening this fall, the Japanese Buddhist Sculptures project will carry on with both its treatment and outreach activities, and conservators will continue to share the progress virtually.