5 April 2018

OPEN DOOR POLICY: CONSERVATION LABS ON VIEW

CONSERVATION TIPS & TRICKS

BY: SERENA YPELAAR & AMY INTRATOR

Some of the most popular features of many museums are their open conservation labs, in which visitors can see conservators at work (often through glass). It's another nod to visitors' love of behind-the-scenes opportunities, and seeing the process allows a transparency we don't always get in museums. We've compiled a list of some institutions where you can see conservation labs up close!

Royal Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller, Alberta

During the summer, the Royal Tyrrell Museum processes fossils discovered by the archaeological team in the field. Their work is done in the Preparation Lab (formerly the Fossil Lab), which is accessible to visitors in the form of a large glass window. Visitors can watch conservators and archaeologists at work with new fossil discoveries of various sizes and types. Many of the specimens were discovered in the local area in Alberta, such as Dinosaur Provincial Park, which is where the field station is located. Some specimens take up to five years to prepare completely, so the Preparation Lab often has conservators working on long-term projects.


The Fossil Lab in 2007. Source.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA)
Photo courtesy of Amy Intrator.

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) the Conservation in Action display allows visitors to see conservators working on artifacts up close and personal. The Conservation in Action Gallery is a space dedicated to displaying the conservation processes undertaken in the gallery, but conservation displays have also been set up in the Asian Painting Gallery and other parts of the Museum.

The conservation displays change with new acquisitions and projects, and the developing display fits into the museum’s larger initiative to merge front-of-house programming with behind-the-scenes access. In addition to the Conservation in Action display, the MFA has displays dedicated to the choices, decisions, and efforts made by Museum staff. From a display about “Making Choices” between displaying different artifacts, to an explanation of classifying processes, the Museum is extremely transparent about processes that are usually kept behind closed doors.


Boston MFA's Making Choices Display. Photo
courtesy of Amy Intrator.
Penn Museum, Philadelphia

The Penn Museum in Philadelphia has displayed their conservation process since 2012, with the opening of In the Artifact Lab: Conserving Egyptian Mummies. In 2017, the lab reopened as The Artifact Lab: Conservation in Action, which now focuses on a variety of artifact conservation. The lab is described as “part exhibition, part working laboratory” and visitors have the opportunity to look into the glass as conservators work on artifacts, but they can also explore objects in the gallery and learn about the conservation process each artifact underwent. The combination of exploration and observation allows visitors to engage in a dialogue about conservation, rather than passively watch conservators at work. The Museum also makes an effort to keep visitors informed and engaged through a blog with information about the Museum’s current and past conservation initiatives. The combination of resources helps the visitor learn about the scientific, artistic, and practical knowledge necessary to properly conserve the museum’s artifacts.


National Trust, Knole House, UK

The Knole Conservation Studio is the first National Trust offering of its kind. Free to all visitors, it is located in Knole House in West Kent and offers an interactive look at the conservation process. Housed in a 15th century barn, the first floor holds a display of historic items laid out and waiting to be conserved. The building's windows have been blocked for preservation against light damage, but a timed lighting system allows visitors to view the conservation area for limited periods. The second floor holds the conservation studio itself, where visitors can watch conservators at work and engage with interactive displays such as drawers. Tours of the space are also available, and conservators and volunteers can answer questions in the space itself. The studio even has UV light box that can illuminate areas of an object that have been restored. It also has an iPad with a decision-making game allowing visitors to "play the conservator".

Knole House, West Kent, UK. Source.

Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Spokane, Washington

The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture has a “working Collections Lab” with a variety of displays and programs that bring visitors behind-the-scenes and into the collections process. While many galleries feature conservation labs that visitors can peek into, this museum features several different programs that allow for a more open dialogue between visitors and museum staff. From an “Artifact Boot Camp” featuring chats with museum staff and volunteers as they work, to a display about the science of decay, there are multiple opportunities for visitors to engage in the collections process. The full and changing display connects the Museum’s dedication to collections stewardship with their commitment to lifelong learning by opening a dialogue between visitors and the museum collection.


The openness of these conservation labs provides an additional level of learning and offers a special glimpse into the work museum professionals - namely conservators and collections managers - do. The transparency of these labs brings an awareness of the importance of preserving these artifacts for the future - have you been to any museums with open conservation labs?

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