Museum of Fine Arts offers behind-the-scenes look at art conservation

The conservators' studio space at MFA, includes the gap where visitors to the gallery can talk to the conservator directly. The TV shows information discovered by the team working on the figures at the MFA. Boston, Mass., Oct. 10, 2019. Photo by Lillian Eden/BU News Service.

By Lillian Eden
BU News Service

BOSTON — In a temporary gallery set up in the Art of Asia wing at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, visitors can see the artwork in a way that it has never been seen before: lying prone under a bright light, being attended to by the museum’s conservators. 

One of the pieces, “Bishamonten, Guardian of the North,” was crafted thousands of year ago during the Heian period. It is made of joined woodblocks of Japanese cypress with a hollow space inside. The head may be removable, but no one has seen what the hollow space may reveal because it is nailed to the body, said Linsly Boyer, the conservator working on the figure that day.

The figure Tamonten, the guardian of the North, closely zoomed to the white residue that may be a pesticide sprayed on the wooden figures in the past to stop a pest infestation. Boston, Mass., Oct. 10, 2019. Photo by Lillian Eden/BU News Service.

The figure is part of a temporary workspace where people can observe conservators working and ask them questions. It’s part of a long-term plan to refurbish the Japanese Buddhist Temple Room.

“Conservation is a mix of studio art, art history and science,” said Linsly Boyer, a conservator working on the Bishamonten figure.

It’s not only an opportunity for attendees of the MFA to see conservators working and willing to answer questions, but also a chance for scientists and conservators to examine Japanese religious figures in greater detail than they’ve ever been studied. 

Linsly Boyer, a conservator at the MFA exhibit Conservation In Action: Japanese Buddhist Sculpture in a New Light, hunches over the figure “Bishamonten, Guardian of the North” in the temporary gallery designed to let attendees of the museum interact with conservators as they work. Boston, Mass., Oct.10, 2019. Photo by Lillian Eden/BU News Service.

In the past, the MFA brought in conservators and craftsmen to work on these figures, but they left no documentation of the work that they did. Boyer explained that unless past conservation is harming the piece, it won’t be removed because it is part of the history of the piece, even work done as recently as 50 years ago.

Dianna Matukaitis Brown, a tour guide at the MFA, compared conservators’ work to that of doctors. They examine and analyze the pieces and develop treatment plans for them, much like physicians would with patients, she explained. 

On this day, Boyer is carefully dissolving the filling around the nails in the Bishamonten figure with acetone. Boyer thought the nails may have been a recent addition. “They look modern,” she said based on the shape as seen by an X-ray. The acetone solubility also indicates that it’s more recent, but they don’t know whether the nails were added in Japan or the U.S.

Other work to be done on this piece includes stabilizing flaking paint and gilding with adhesives. Unless absolutely necessary, conservators will use natural adhesives to stabilize a piece. The last resort is Paraloid B-72, which is an acrylic resin. All the work they do is thoroughly documented and reversible, Boyer said.

It is not uncommon for these hollow statues to have inscriptions in them, Boyer said, pointing to another piece on display in the gallery. The “Shinto Deity Hatchiman,” is similarly made of joined woodblocks with a removable head. An inscription sits inside which identifies the artist and the year the piece was made. If the nails and then the head of the Bishamonten can be safely removed, Boyer and the other conservators are hoping to find similar inscriptions inside.

The figure Shinto Deity Hatchiman, which is hollow with a removable head. Inside the Hatchiman’s head is an inscription of the artist and the year the figure was made. Boston, Mass., Oct. 10, 2019. Photo by Lillian Eden/BU News Service.

The conservators are spending a lot of time with each of the figures, not just stabilizing them. UV light can be used to determine the age of a pigment, for example, and X-rays can be used to find things like the nails in the Bishamonten figure. They’re also gathering data so that they can make detailed 3D models of the figures, Boyer said.

It’s not all straightforward, however. Brown explained one of the pieces, “Amida, Buddha of Infinite Light,” also from the 12th century Heian Period, showed indications of a bug infestation. There is a bug-sniffing dog named Riley that the museum employs, but it was the conservators who discovered evidence that the figure may have something living in it.

The Amida is currently encased in an anoxia chamber, an enormous cube-shaped contraption with a plastic cover. The chamber has no oxygen in it, so after three to four weeks inside, any infestations should be eradicated and the conservation process can start, Brown explained.

Two other wooden figures are also on hold for conservation work: “Zochoten, the Guardian of the South”, and “Tamonten, the Guardian of the North.” They have white residue, which may be a pesticide likely sprayed on them to stop an insect infestation at some point. Extra precautions will have to be taken so the toxic residue does not become airborne, Brown said.

Artwork like paintings or stone statues will require different tools and techniques to conserve them, and this exhibit is a hint at what is to come. Attendees of the museum will get to see other forms of conservation in action with the opening of the new conservation wing in 2020, which promises a light-filled, open space where visitors can observe conservators at work.

A table arranged by the MFA with tools frequently used by conservators, and on the left are lined plates of examples of adhesives they may use. Boston, Mass., Oct. 10, 2019. Photo by Lillian Eden/BU News Service

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