Established in 1928, the Virginia Herrick Deknatel Paper Conservation Laboratory is responsible for the preservation and technical study of prints, drawings, pastels, watercolors, illustrated books, and photographs from curatorial departments across the Museum. The lab’s conservators and collections care staff work together to develop strategies to assess and meet the needs of art and artifacts dating from antiquity (early forms of paper) to the present day. Examination, treatment, and preparation of art for storage and display are carried out using traditional and new materials and methods.

Conservators employ a variety of examination techniques, such as reflected and transmitted light, infrared reflectography and ultraviolet light, and microscopy and sample analysis, sometimes in combination with technical analysis provided by the Scientific Research Lab, to evaluate artworks. The study of the material components of an object and the trace signs of its manufacture allows conservators to provide art historical content, decipher the working methods of an artist, write accurate media descriptions, and evaluate the condition of a particular object. With this information, conservators infer how an object may have looked when first created, as well as anticipate how it will react to common agents of deterioration such as light exposure and changes in temperature and relative humidity. These assessments in turn inform preservation and treatment parameters.

Paper-based and photographic collections are often quite fragile, and a controlled environment is a critical component of preservation. Exposure to light, fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity, and pollutants contribute to chemical and physical changes such as fading, darkening, discoloration, migration of materials, discernible and microscopic dimensional changes, as well as cracking and flaking of image material.

Conservation treatment is sometimes necessary and is often done to stabilize affected art. Stabilization treatments may involve repairing damages or consolidating flaking media to prevent future loss. Paper conservators reduce stains in paper, fill losses, remove old tapes and adhesives, reduce distortions and mitigate damage from mold. Conservation treatments are executed with respect for the original intent of the artist and are fully documented with written reports and high-resolution digital photographs so that conservators and scholars years from now will know what was done today.

MFA paper conservators and collections care staff are committed to the care of art on paper, making numerous extraordinary objects accessible to the public each year through exhibitions and educational outreach, while also overseeing the care of hundreds of thousands more in collections storage for the future.

Featured Projects

The Daguerreotype Research Portal

Condition monitoring of daguerreotypes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, George Eastman House, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art