In a recent, intensive three-day workshop presented by the Harvard Art Museums, titled “The Potential of Technical Studies and Conservation for Prints and Drawings Curatorship,” 16 participants from institutions around the world joined experts in and beyond the museums to tease out what the fruits of collaborative labor between curators, conservators, and artists might look like.
Generously funded by the Getty Foundation’s The Paper Project: Prints and Drawings Curatorship in the 21st Century, the workshop included case study presentations, visits to the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, and art making activities.
Before the workshop, participants were asked to replicate two drawings from the museums’ collections and experiment with various drawing media. Many were reluctant to hand in their assignments on the first day, humbled by the difficulty of the task and with new appreciation for the artists they chose. Though the assignments turned out to be fabulous replications, the point was never to produce a “quality” reproduction that would fool connoisseurs of Sheeler or Delacroix. Rather, participants were meant to gain a kind of haptic knowledge by using the types of media employed by the artists.
Ad Stijnman, a printmaker and independent scholar of historical printing inks and techniques, and Chris Wallace, a local printmaker and educator, led a session on printmaking at Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies’ studio space inside the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. Participants experimented with two different media: drypoint (demonstrated by Stijnman) and lithography (covered by Wallace). Chris prepared a very “meta” lithography block for a curatorial workshop: an image of a lithographer making a lithograph.
The participants were thrilled, it seemed, to get their hands in the ink and to understand printmaking by doing. Many commented on how difficult the process was and were eager to try different ways of inking their plates to see what would be rendered by variations in process.
Over breakfast the second day, numerous participants talked about how the conservators at their home institutions are stretched thin with many projects competing for their attention and how they may not have access to conservators who specialize in works on paper. They also mentioned that they may not have adequate resources to support the type of collaboration with conservators and conservation scientists that is a cornerstone of the Harvard Art Museums’ mission and practice.
This is precisely where the “potential” of the workshop title comes into play. The workshop was not an opportunity to boast about the Harvard Art Museums’ success or prominence in pursuing an interdisciplinary approach to works on paper; rather, part of the workshop’s objective was to highlight the material ways in which curators might be limited in undertaking such an approach. It also emphasized pragmatic methods curators can use to bring a “do it yourself” ethos to projects whenever possible.
Time spent in the Straus Center gave participants hands-on experience with conservation equipment as well as firsthand exposure to the generative possibilities of conservation studies. Participants also had the chance to hone the language of conservation. Newfound confidence and an understanding of technical vocabulary prepared them to identify questions of interest and possible points of collaboration with conservators about objects in their mutual care. When asked at the breakfast what their takeaways had been thus far, one participant (in a moment that tied up the workshop’s aim with a nice bow) said that he was reminded to slow down and look, to be careful.
Drawing from a History of Close Looking
It is no small secret that close looking is a core value of the Harvard Art Museums, one that is explicitly mentioned in the mission statement and that comes to life in the Art Study Center. The ethos runs deeper still with the renowned “Fogg Method” of art historical knowledge production and ways of knowing. Using an object-centric approach, the Fogg Method prioritized close looking and learning directly from objects, supporting scientific methodologies as equally useful to traditional research.
The Art Study Center makes the Fogg Method more accessible, opening up the collections so that anyone—students, faculty, the public—can examine objects up close. Participants and invited guests at the workshop had the opportunity to see the legacy of the Fogg’s vision directly from those who carry it on. Recent collaborative work between conservators and curators was presented as case studies for participants to use as inspiration.
Studies in Collaboration and an Eye to the Future
One presenter, Jerry Cohn, who worked as a conservator in the paper lab at the Fogg Museum in the 1970s and later served as the Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints at the Fogg until she retired, is a perfect example of this collaborative ethos. At the beginning of her presentation on the materiality of paper, which immediately followed one on the potentially damaging effects of lighting, Cohn requested that the shades be raised completely. She used the bright natural light to show how the color of paper, which is often white, affords meaning and form in drawings and prints. Participants were glued to her every word.
Participants were reminded that they can rely on their own eyes and a flashlight (or, to the potential chagrin of lighting designers, natural light) as one way to achieve better understanding of the objects in their care. Now they possess the skills and confidence to act on their potential (which is vast) and create new realities for their respective collections. It will be exciting to see how these 16 participants apply those methods.
Brianne Chapelle was project assistant for the Getty Foundation–funded “The Potential of Technical Studies and Conservation for Prints and Drawings Curatorship, A Professional Workshop” at the Harvard Art Museums.