Museums Conservation USA

Smithsonian Asian museums get $1m to fund Chinese conservation

The Freer and Sackler Galleries aim to train the next generation of painting restorers

Chinese conservator Xiangmei Gu at work. Photo: courtesy of the Freer and Sackler Galleries

The Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art in Washington, DC, have received a $1m conditional grant from the Mellon Foundation to endow the position of an assistant Chinese painting conservator. The grant will also help the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art continue a paid internship programme aimed at training the next generation of Chinese painting conservators.

The programme seeks to combat what Freer-Sackler officials see as a crisis in the field: only four senior Chinese painting conservators currently work at American museums and all of them are close to retirement, a museum spokeswoman says. (Meanwhile, thousands of Chinese paintings are held in American museum collections, including over 2,500 at the Freer-Sackler alone.)

The museums’ conservation studio has trained 19 interns since its inception in 2000, some of whom went on to permanent positions at institutions including the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City and the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Demand for instruction is also high: in its first year, the programme received more than 220 applicants from 22 countries for eight positions. Interns receive a stipend of $45,000 for the year-long course.

The studio trains students in both Western and Chinese techniques, combining cutting-edge scientific pigment analysis with more traditional practices, such as the remounting of silk, paper and starch adhesive on damaged surfaces. Students learn to gauge when to entirely remount a painting—a strategy preferred by Chinese conservators—and when to execute spot treatments by washing and inpainting, more conservative techniques favoured by US professionals. “By combining best practices from the East and West, we are able to preserve the work for as long as possible while improving its condition and maintaining its usefulness,” says Andrew Hare, the museums’ supervisory East Asian painting conservator.

In order to receive the full grant, the Freer Sackler must raise an additional $750,000 by 2016. (The foundation will match every $100,000 the museum raises along the way.) “Matching this endowment will be an important investment in protecting some of the most fragile treasures in US museums,” the director, Julian Raby, says in a statement.

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