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From the Bench: Literally Hanging by a Thread

October 9, 2012

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

By Meg Loew Craft, Senior Objects Conservator, Walters Art Museum

The Walters Art Museum was delighted to receive a bequest of over 165 Southeast Asian works of art from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in 2002. The objects complement and enhance the Walters’ Asian collection, which is focused on the arts from China and Japan. This diverse gift includes manuscripts and manuscript cabinets, lacquer Buddha sculptures, painted textile banners, ivory seals, and porcelain teapots, to name a few.

The new collection was stored in a climate-controlled, secure facility, but it was offsite, which made the art works difficult to access, study, examine, and integrate into museum programming. A grant from IMLS permitted us to gain access to the Duke objects, examine each piece individually for treatment and storage needs, and correlate curatorial and conservation priorities. A symposium was held that brought Southeast Asian scholars and conservators together to discuss the Duke Collection. Focusing attention on the collection has enabled rehousing of two-thirds of the collection into onsite museum storage and encouraged creative thinking on how to incorporate the Duke objects into current and future exhibition galleries.

A new fire suppression system slated for installation in Hackerman House, our mid-1860s historic building housing Asian art, will necessitate moving the artwork out of the galleries in the near future. This is an opportunity to treat and put some of the larger sculptures and paintings on display in the museum. Information from the survey is being used to help refigure the displays for reinstallation. This is especially significant for eight to ten sculptures and paintings that are too large to fit in our in-house storage area.

Photo courtesy of Walters Art Museum. Accession number 25.240.

This Burmese sculpture of a Buddhist adorant, has been examined during the IMLS survey, given the highest priority by both curators and conservators, and will be treated this fall. The carved wood adorant is covered with lacquer and heavily decorated with gold leaf and glass mirror inlays. The jewelry and flames made of leather similarly adorned are the weakest elements. The leather is water-damaged, distorted and brittle. The cracked leather has been crudely repaired – it is literally hanging by a thread.

Back view shows the broken belt. Photo courtesy of Walters Art Museum. Accession number 25.240.

Without the support of IMLS, attention would not have been focused on the Duke Collection. The survey has generated excitement and exposure for these treasures. We anticipate bringing these objects to light with continuing research, online digital images, chats in the conservation window, and display in the galleries – thanks to IMLS.