Straus and MFA

There is so much to do in Boston, especially on the weekend of the Head of the Charles Regatta. The purpose of my visit was really to watch my husband, Matthew, row in the double…but I was able to sneak in some lab visits while I was there. I arranged tours with Penley Knipe at the Straus Center for Conservation at Harvard, and also with Katrina Newbury at the Museum of Fine Arts.


The Straus Center is currently in a temporary home in Somerville while the Fogg Museum goes through a Renzo Piano-designed transformation. The temporary facility was actually quite nice, segregated in a sort of industrial area with plenty of parking…and the conservation section seemed to have lots of space and a good amount of natural light. I’m only sorry that I didn’t get to see their previous lab, which was also lovely (in the photos, at least).

Previous Straus Conservation Center by Sam Anderson Architects, in 1996.

The Straus has an impressive inventory of materials, including an array of modern pigments and the core of the Forbes collection. Conservation Scientist Jens Stenger showed me all of the analytical equipment, including some of the historic pieces that are no longer in use. I didn’t know this during my tour, but I read on the website that the Straus (then the Center for Conservation and Technical Studies) was “the first institution in the United States to use scientific methods to study artists’ materials and techniques.” The Advanced-level training program also has a grand history, offering fellowships in conservation since 1972.

On the other side of the floor, current fellows Sara Bisi and Ariel O’Connor described to me their current projects in paper and objects, respectively, and talked a little about their educational and professional backgrounds; it’s always good to hear that there isn’t ONE requisite path to becoming a conservator! I know it sounds silly, but I always have to ask: where did you go to school? This was mostly a Buffalo crowd, with the exception of Paper Conservator Penley Knipe, who is a Winterthur grad.


The paper conservation lab at the MFA was founded in the same year as the Straus Center–1928–to provide a service for the Prints, Drawings and Photographs Department “so that treatments and exhibition preparations could be done within the Museum rather than by outside contractors.” The current version of the lab is beautiful, with views out the south (?) entrance of the museum.

This conservation department is the first I’ve visited with separate studios for Western and Eastern paper. The atmosphere of the Asian Conservation Studio is much different than that of it’s counterpart, in spirit and in appearance; tatami mats cover about half of the room and tables are low enough for routine lining of objects. Philip Meredith and Tina Tan, along with their conservation fellows, speak mostly in Japanese; I assume that’s easiest since, A. visiting fellows may not speak much English and, B. many of the terms for materials and techniques have no English equivalent.

It seems that the two paper labs rarely have a need to collaborate on a treatment, except where a contemporary Asian artist is using a mix of modern and traditional materials. As a paper conservator, and even more, as an art enthusiast, I would want a hand in every collection, the prints in Under the Skin: Tattoos in Japanese Prints AND the pieces in New Works: Prints, Drawings, Collages…and maybe even the Nicholas Nixon photographs, too! It probably is best to specialize for the sake of the collection; luckily working in a museum you can still see it all!

In case you were wondering, I did ask, and Katrina and her colleagues are mostly Winterthur alums. Katrina’s background, specifically, confirmed for me that building a relationship with an institution may have an impact on your future there; Katrina, for example, starting working at the MFA as an intern and returned later in a permanent position. It also seems like many museum employees, in all departments, got their start in the summer internship program. What does that mean for conservators, though, when there are so few jobs on the market? Does it mean more volunteering? A question for another blog post…

The new Art of the America's Wing, view from Forsyth Way

Thanks to my hosts for taking the time to show me around! I’ll leave you with a photo of the new Art of the America’s Wing at the MFA, to open Nov. 20.

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