This post is part of the “From the Bench” series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, they work to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see www.imls.gov/applicants/available_grants.aspx.
By Nancy Norwood, Curator of European Art, Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester
April 16, 2012, the day we installed the Flemish tapestry Trellised Garden with Animals in our Renaissance gallery, was one of the most rewarding days in my 12 years as curator of European art at the Memorial Art Gallery.
As is the case with many older museums —MAG celebrates its centennial next year—we have the luxury of an encyclopedic collection of world art and the challenge of preserving it. Medieval and Renaissance tapestries are among the most impressive and popular works in museums, but because of their massive size, sensitivity to light, and fragility, their ongoing preservation requires special attention. In our case, the challenge was extreme. Most of our tapestries were acquired in the 1920s and 1930s specifically for display in our great hall, where they had been exhibited without interruption for several decades. By 2000, only one tapestry was healthy enough to remain on view.
Enter the European Tapestry Initiative, a project that began in 2002 as a way to systematically evaluate and conserve the tapestries in our collection. The end goal was the treatment of a core group of our best medieval and Renaissance work and the establishment of a systematic rotation schedule for them, a formidable task considering the need for specialized conservators and considerable financial resources.
IMLS Conservation Project Support grants provided both the initial and continuing support necessary for the success of the initiative. A 2003 Detailed Condition Survey grant kicked the project into gear, allowing Marlene Eidelheit, the director of the Textile Conservation Laboratory of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City to spend four days at the museum. She carefully examined and evaluated each of our tapestries, providing treatment proposals and training staff on handling and storage at the same time. This survey was an essential first step to implementing the project.
IMLS continued to support the Tapestry Initiative when, in 2009, we received a major CPS grant that enabled the essential and exhaustive conservation of Trellised Garden with Animals, woven in Brussels by the Pannemaker workshops during the 1560s and 70s. We knew that once Trellised Garden returned to view, we needed to have a replacement waiting in the wings for rotation the following year. In 2011, we received a third IMLS CPS grant that would support the treatment of Battle of the Animals (affectionately known to staff and the conservator as “Beasts”). Once Beasts returns to MAG from the Cathedral’s conservation lab, we will install it in the place of pride left vacant by Trellised Garden, which will have been rolled and returned to storage for a well-deserved respite from the stresses of light and gravity.
For more information on MAG’s tapestry and other conservation-related grant initiatives, see http://mag.rochester.edu/aroundmag/grants-and-awards-news/