'Pop-up' lab allows Carlos Museum visitors to encounter art conservation in action

Emory Report | Sept. 10, 2019

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Jessica Betz Abel, Mellon Foundation Advanced Conservation Fellow (left), and Brittany Dinneen, assistant conservator, use a cleaning solution delivered with a rigid agarose gel to reduce surface grime on the “Cosmic Man.”

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As one of the activities celebrating the centennial of the Michael C. Carlos Museum, a “pop-up” conservation lab is in the museum’s John Howett Works on Paper Gallery, giving visitors the opportunity to watch work that usually only happens in the Parsons Conservation Laboratory, located in an area of the museum only accessible to staff. 

Through the end of September, a team of staff and consulting conservators assisted by student interns will work to stabilize a 19-century Indian painting of the Cosmic Man, a visual representation of the Jain universe in human form and its worldly subdivisions. Jains believe that souls move between three realms—urhva loka (heaven), madhya loka (earth) and adho loka (hell)—with their movement directed by the karma they have accumulated.

Paintings of the Cosmic Man often are utilized in temples as an educational tool. At Emory, faculty use the Carlos Museum’s Cosmic Man in courses on South Asian religion. When conservators’ work is complete, the Cosmic Man will go on view in the Asian gallery. 

Work on the Cosmic Man is based on research undertaken by Emory students enrolled in Renée Stein’s fall 2018 Technical Art History course. They examined the painting to study its present condition as well as its materials and techniques of manufacture. Students mapped the painting’s condition, noting damage such as abrasion, tears, holes, stains and patches. They also documented it under visible, ultraviolet and infrared radiation to study the painting’s weave structure and identify the pigments used in its creation.

This technical investigation informed the treatment plan conservators developed, which includes stabilizing flaking paint, reducing surface grime, relaxing folds and securing the painting to a rigid support for display and storage.

During the pop-up lab, the Cosmic Man is being treated atop a large table, with an overhead view projected onto a wall. Visitors can watch conservators using tools ranging from cameras, magnifiers, a HEPA vacuum and an ultrasonic humidifier to foam sponges, tweezers, brushes and needles. A whiteboard is updated with daily tasks, and conservators can occasionally pause to describe their work.

The conservation team includes Renée Stein (chief conservator); Brittany Dinneen (assistant conservator); Jessica Betz Abel (Mellon Foundation Advanced Conservation Fellow); Elizabeth Schulte (consulting paper conservator); Patricia Ewer (consulting textiles conservator); and student interns. Visitors can access more information about the technical investigation and treatment plan on the project website (also accessible from an iPad in the gallery) and follow the project’s progress through images posted weekly under the Updates section.

The public can learn more about the treatment process at a free Conservation Conversation panel discussion on Thursday, Sept. 19, at 7:30 p.m. in Ackerman Hall of the Carlos Museum. During the discussion, the conservation team will share information from the technical investigation of the painting and share updates on the ongoing work in the pop-up lab.