The Asian Conservation Studio, established in 1907, is the oldest outside of Asia and one of only five such studios in the United States. Its staff cares for 2-dimensional art from the Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Himalayan, Indian, and Islamic collections at the Museum. Asian painting formats, different from Western formats and unique to their own cultures, vary greatly. They include scrolls, screens, panels, miniatures, albums, and bound and unbound manuscripts. (The earliest painting in the collection is a Chinese handscroll from the seventh century depicting thirteen emperors painted in ink and colored pigments on silk.) The studio is also responsible for Asian printed books, postcards, and prints. The Japanese prints collection alone numbers more than 55,000.
Care for these many diverse objects range from proper storage and environmental conditions to conservation treatments. Asian paintings and prints sometimes only need remedial work, such as surface cleaning with a soft bristle brush, a soft piece of chamois, or a grated eraser gently rolled over an area. Others require more attention and invasive treatments. This delicate work is performed by the studio conservators, who have specializations in Japanese, Chinese, and Himalayan paintings and Japanese printed materials. The conservators also regularly collaborate and consult with colleagues from around the world, who not only share their knowledge but also help source the unique materials needed for conservation of Asian-format works. Specialty supplies include Asian papers with calcium additives, which create a soft supple paper conducive to rolling, a property essential in a scroll format, and brushes handmade from hemp, a plant fiber, which produce a flexible but strong brush that can smooth pasted papers.
Many complex treatments involve the remounting of Asian paintings, undertaken to return them to their original and appropriate formats. For example, a Tibetan thangka painting that had been converted into a Japanese-style hanging scroll format sometime in its past would first require removal from its current mount, with original parts of the mount saved for possible reuse. Next, treatment of the painting would address various problems, such as tears, flaking, or powdery pigments, and losses in the original support (usually paper or silk for most paintings). Selection and preparation of the appropriate mount materials would follow before the painting can be placed into its mount. A Tibetan painting’s mount is made from silk and cotton textiles that are sewn together in a hanging scroll format, unlike Japanese, Chinese, and Korean mounts which use paper-backed fabrics and decorative papers that are attached to the painting with wheat starch paste.
Asian studio conservators utilize traditional conservation methods—the treatment of Asian paintings has a history that is hundreds of years old in most Asian cultures—but also incorporate more recent innovations, such as the use of synthetic adhesives and materials, and scientific techniques, such as infrared reflectography and X-ray fluorescence mapping. This integrated approach gives staff the best of both worlds as they ready objects for exhibition and carry out treatments that preserve the integrity of the original artworks.
Treatment and remounting of a Ming dynasty Daoist hanging scroll from the sixteenth century
Treatment and remounting of an eighteenth century Buddhist hanging scroll by Hanabusa Itchō