Learning the Art of Conservation

By definition, the name Shangri La evokes an enchanted and remote utopia. One visit to Doris Duke’s home takes you on a journey of the senses where you are transported around the world through an exquisite assemblage of art and artifacts. The architectural design alone against the backdrop of the natural beauty of Hawaii is breathtaking and awe-inspiring! Within these walls, a vast collection of precious items awaits its day to bask in the glow of a conservator’s lamp. This is where I come in as a graduate, pre-program intern interested in art conservation. Under the guidance of Conservator, Kent Severson, I was introduced to a small bowl that had seen better days.

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48.318 Before Treatment

The previously restored bowl had fallen apart in storage. Large fragments, including sections of the rim, had detached and yellow resin covered half the surface. In this condition it could not be viewed by the public. The first thing to determine was exactly what had been holding it together and what was used during its previous restoration. The resin, the adhesive and the fill material had to be tested for solubility. Through these tests, the bowl in essence spoke to what it had been through in recent history, giving vital information. Once I determined the materials and techniques used, I was able to formulate a plan to treat it.

An assessment of the previously repaired joints’ stability was made to decide if any of the bowl needed to be disassembled and reassembled for aesthetic purposes. I photographed the item for documentation purposes and the fun began! I had to carefully remove the resin, the previous restoration paint, the adhesives and the fill. This series of steps revealed the substrate I had to work with. I consolidated the edges of the fragments using a stable acrylic-based adhesive. Then the reassembly began, piece by piece, using a stable acrylic-based adhesive. Small losses were filled with an acrylic-based fill material.

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48.318 During Treatment

This is the point where you start to see the piece come to life again—it is a magical moment when the pieces reunite. Finally, acrylic emulsion paints are applied to both the interior and exterior to achieve a harmonious transition between surfaces.

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48.318 After Treatment
48.318 After Treatment
48.318 After Treatment

During the process it was easy to forget just far along the bowl had come. Kent would remind me to take a look at the before pictures! I have to say, the time spent with the bowl became a labor of love; it will forever hold a special place in my heart. I am truly grateful to the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art for the opportunity and the introduction to the art of conservation through this amazing piece from the collection.

About the guest author:

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Elizabeth Asal

Elizabeth Asal received her B.A. in Art History from the University of Hawaii Mānoa in 2015. Prior to her studies she worked at Gallery Iolani in Kaneohe, Hawaii. She is a ceramicist and comes from a family of artists.