What Came Before

May 10, 2010

The stone reliefs depicting two of the favorite horses of Emperor Taizong (r. 626-649) are among the Museum’s greatest treasures. They had been on exhibit in the Harrison Rotunda for at least 75 years. In 2008, a request for loan of the artifacts led to their being closely examined. That examination showed that the mending, done sometime shortly after the reliefs arrived at the Museum in 1918, was no longer stable. One whole section of C 396 (‘Curly’) was displaced by nearly an inch and comparison with old photographs showed that this had happened sometime since the reliefs had been installed in the Museum.

How could we not have noticed earlier?

Detail of C 396. Red arrows show where stone has moved out of its original position

In our defense, we have thousands of artifacts on exhibit and nearly a million more in storage. Our conservation department currently is small so, even though we are ably assisted in preservation efforts by all the Museum collections staff, we have a hard time keeping up. This change had probably occurred very slowly over decades and only became apparent under close examination and comparison with photographs from the Museum’s Archives.

Once the problem was identified we immediately came up with a plan of action. Our planning was hampered by a lack of knowledge: we had no idea how the pieces of each relief had been put together (had an adhesive or mortar been used? were metal pins connecting the stones?) or what kind of support structure was under them. Searches of the Museum archives gave us little information; this is often the case because the less glamorous aspects of museum work were often not well documented. Over the years, we’ve become adept at developing plans for multiple contingencies but it’s always nerve-wracking.

Plan of Action:

  • Document and assess current condition in detail
  • Clean reliefs and disassemble, removing old, unstable fills and adhesives, if any
  • Stabilize joins
  • Provide structural support and armature that will prevent future instability of the sort documented in the April 2008 examination.
  • Replace old restored areas with modern, more stable materials

Sounds easy when you reduce it to bullet points but this was the beginning of an 18 month odyssey that would be more complex than we ever anticipated.

In the past, we routinely hired outside contract conservators for large projects like this, because of our small staff and busy schedule.  This time, we decided to try to do it in-house as far as possible, because this would be more cost-effective, especially with so many unknown variables.

Donor John R. Rockwell examines fragments of relief with conservators Lynn Grant (left) and Julie Lawson (right)

Fortunately , generous donors, Mr. and Mrs. John R. Rockwell (W’64; WG’66), agreed to underwrite the cost of the project, including some temporary extra help in the Conservation Lab. Without their support, none of this would have been possible.

Julie Lawson, who has worked in the lab since 1998, was the primary conservator for the project, while I looked after logistics and moral support. We’ve also had a lot of help from a wide array of Museum staff: the Asian Section, Exhibits, the Registrars’ Office, Archives, Facilities, Security, Events, Rentals, Education, Visitors Services – well, pretty much everyone at one time or another!

Conservator Julie Lawson at work on an earlier project