Conserving the Buddhist Murals: An Introduction

May 1, 2014

Just because artifacts have been in our collections or even on display for a long time doesn’t mean we know all about them. A case in point is the large Buddhist Murals in our Chinese Rotunda, probably the largest artifacts in our collection, at least in area. Although they’ve been on exhibition there since the 1920s, there’s a lot we don’t know about them and even the things we think we know may not be true.

Details of the murals showing (left) areas on C 688 where mud plaster is powdering, and (right) lifting surface on C 492

As conservators, one thing we are sure of is that the murals are showing signs of instability: areas of lifting surface and areas where the mud plaster substrate is turning to powder. But identifying the cause of the instability and determining a method to conserve them is a job as big as the murals themselves. Starting last fall, supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and Michael Feng and Winnie Chin Feng, we’ve begun work on a survey of the murals’ current condition that will enable us to do just that. The first step was to take high resolution digital images of the murals current appearance. These photographs, taken by professional architectural photographer Joseph Elliott, form the basis of the condition documentation. Our methodology for the survey is based on advice from two conservators who have worked on similar murals in their own collections: Cathy Stewart of the Royal Ontario Museum and Kate Garland of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (NAMA). The NAMA mural is particularly similar in condition and type to ours and Kate Garland’s visit in December 2013 was invaluable in helping the conservators and conservation interns see the finer points of the mural construction and restoration.

Photographer Joseph Elliott taking high resolution digital images of the murals.

Since early February, two pre-program* conservation interns, Cassia Balogh and Morgan Burgess have been recording the current condition using a multi-layer photo editing program. Working with one area at a time, they closely examine each centimeter of the surface, documenting more than fifteen different condition phenomena, such as previous restorations, cracks, flaking surface, exposed ground, and others.

Pre-program interns Morgan Burgess (left) and Cassia Balogh (right) work recording the current condition of  the mural C 688
Pre-program interns Cassia Balogh (left) and Morgan Burgess (right) work recording the current condition of the mural C 688

*Pre-program interns are those who plan to pursue a career in conservation but have not yet been accepted to one of the graduate training programs. Acceptance into these programs is very competitive and candidates need to have a lot of relevant experience when applying. Cassia and Morgan have been working with the conservation Department as volunteers, paid Technicians and now paid interns while they gain the necessary experience.