Different perspectives: diversity in art conservation

Tirza HarrisProgram student Tirza Harris in the Restoration and Conservation Laboratory at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 2021. 

Program student Tirza Harris in the Restoration and Conservation Laboratory at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 2021. 

Walking through a museum or gallery I have always found to be a true privilege. To spend time wandering and thinking about how and why an object was made, and with what materials, is a wonderful experience that needs to be accessible to everyone. As a profession, art conservation extends this privilege and curiosity to the "back of house," where one is able to delve into these questions and use this knowledge to inform treatment and preventive measures.

Conservation is a holistic discipline at the crossroads between art history and science, incorporating ethics, problem-solving and fine hand-skills to care for – and extend the lifetime of – a work of art. It is about preserving the tangible and intangible nature of an artwork. This includes exploring the complex cultural legacies of an object, collaborating with an artist or community to ensure that the object is correctly cared for and that proper narratives are championed. It also includes becoming familiar with the technical and material history of the objects, so that they may be appropriately treated.

Queen's University and NGC program student Tirza Harris.

Queen's University and NGC program student Tirza Harris.

The purpose of the National Gallery of Canada’s Conservation Internship Program for Diversity is to provide a sound learning environment for students from diverse communities as they enter the conservation profession, while financially supporting their academic endeavours. Museums have historically represented the Western tradition in their collections and displays: diverse representation is often lacking in the art that is on view, how it is displayed, and even in terms of what is considered "art." Diversity is also missing in professional roles. The ultimate goal of the program is to allow for different perspectives and experiences – historically left out of conservation processes – to contribute to shaping the profession. This program is an important first step in a long-needed effort to diversify this engaging field, and the art world more broadly.

The program was designed to expose students to conservation in general and acquaint them with the research methods, technical examination and intricate ethical considerations involved. No amount of independent research – reading articles and reports, watching videos demonstrating treatments or attending webinars on ethics – can fully prepare you for the complexities of conservation. The program exposed me, a Master's student at Queen’s University, to the collaborative nature of conservation work alongside the other departments in a large institution. I was also fortunate to be able to meet with teams at the Canadian Conservation Institute to discuss ongoing projects, notably the developing dialogue regarding Indigenous issues in conservation and the need to further support Indigenous views and ways of caring for heritage and works of art.

Harris examining flaking paint in the Restoration and Conservation Laboratory at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 2021. 

Harris examining flaking paint in the Restoration and Conservation Laboratory at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 2021. 

During my time at the Gallery, Stephen Gritt, Director of Conservation and Technical Research, encouraged me to pursue my own topics of interest to help orient the program to my benefit. I explored various case studies, such as how to care for outdoor metal sculptures by a living artist and the collaborative process required when working alongside them, or how to create tailored storage solutions for complex objects. Specializing in painting conservation, my learning focused on common and unusual problems related to paint – for example, the chemical reactions that can occur in metal-based pigments and can lead to small eruptions in the paint layer.

A beautiful 18th-century British portrait by an unknown artist was chosen as my gateway to learning about painting conservation, including examination, treatment and the creation of a condition report that informs future conservators and curators. Condition reports document a painting’s different components and materials, assess its condition, and indicate whether previous treatment has occurred or is required. It is thrilling to interact with a work of art and to be able to tease apart its layers, in order to uncover its story. Close examination – whether under microscope, with X-radiography, or by using scientific analysis to determine the work’s elemental makeup – provides as much information as it elicits questions. Through examination, research and contextualization, a narrative can be constructed that illuminates a work’s history and origins.

Barthel Bruyn (the Elder), Christian von Conersheim and his Wife Elisabeth von Brauweiler , 1544. Oil on oa

Barthel Bruyn (the Elder), Christian von Conersheim and his Wife Elisabeth von Brauweiler , 1544. Oil on oak, 47 x 35 cm each irregular. Purchased 1913. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

For several weeks during my internship, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic kept the Gallery closed to the public. This created an exceptional opportunity for theoretical discussions and inquiries to take place in empty galleries, directly in front of the works on display. One wonderful diptych that we examined, for its demonstration of historical art conventions and conservation treatments, is Barthel Bruyn the Elder’s Christian von Conersheim and his Wife Elisabeth von Brauweiler. The mid-16th-century oil paintings are on oak panels and are displayed in the European galleries.  One particular aspect that interested me was that early picture frames were integral to the panel. Panel makers would remove wood from the centre of a panel, creating an area where the paint would be applied, while the remaining raised edge along the outside would function as the frame. As panel-making developed, engaged frames were created, such as the Bruyn diptych, whereby pieces of wood were attached to each side of the panel to frame the artwork.  These developments eventually resulted in the independent frames that are known today: decorative art pieces in themselves, created to reflect the ornamental tastes of their time and chosen to complement a painting.

Neri di Bicci, The Assumption of the Virgin , 1455-1456. Egg tempera with oil glazes, mordant gilding and gold leaf on wood

Neri di Bicci, The Assumption of the Virgin, 1455–56. Egg tempera with oil glazes, mordant gilding and gold leaf on wood, likely poplar, 216 x 221 cm. irregular. Purchased 1930. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Neri di Bicci’s The Assumption of the Virgin, also on view in the European galleries, is a magnificent 15th-century altarpiece that reflects the artisan workshops and materials of this period. Close observation of the painting shows vertical lines, spaced at fairly regular intervals, running the length of the piece: these are where small wooden planks have been joined to one another to create one large panel support. Di Bicci used a variety of pigments that were available to him, including toxic vermillion and costly ultramarine from Afghanistan, and these pigments remain vibrant. In the lighter colours along the base, one can see hints of the underdrawing through the paint layer – a common feature of aged paintings. These elements invite reflection on the artistic environment in which this work was created: the craftsmanship required to create quality panels, the extensive trade routes that these pigments and wood for supports travelled, the artist's knowledge of pigments that enabled Di Bicci to reliably choose lasting pigments for his work, and the busy workshops in which apprentices prepared pigments.

A week-long introductory workshop to gilding was my final project. Gilding is the application of gold leaf to a solid support. Many frames and paintings have gilded sections: Bruyn’s portrait frames and the halos on Di Bicci’s altarpiece are all gilded. Gold leaf is finicky to work with: one wrong breath and the fine leaf will fold in on itself or float away. Preparation of the support – in my case, a section of a wooden frame and a small decorative cherub – required painstaking attention to complete. Gilding is a technique that highlights two important skills conservators have: endless patience to delicately work on a treatment and the acceptance that every new skill is an uphill battle to improve and perfect.

The program made it clear that I had gained two critical tools: how to look and think like a conservator. One can spend endless hours examining a painting and still find a new feature or problem on the surface. Further hours of scientific examination will unveil even more. No treatment or conservation issue is the same. Each project requires a unique approach, one that takes into consideration a work’s history, the original materials used, the problems it has faced and its current circumstances. The best approach requires thoughtful deliberation and a balance of different factors to achieve the preferred outcome. The opportunity to explore these aspects with different works of art and to care for the creative endeavours of human culture is exciting. The program strengthened my resolve that I was embarking on the right path for my future career as a conservator.


For details of the  NGC's Conservation Internship for Diversity Program, click on link. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

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