The Conservation Department is responsible for the care and preservation of the museum’s great variety of objects—some 16,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, and rare books. While restoring artworks to their prime condition is one of the most visible tasks, the majority of the department’s work entails minimizing risks of damage. The conservators and department staff work closely with museum colleagues and various specialists to maintain an ideal environment for other artwork. They also carefully mat and frame works for both exhibition and storage, prepare objects for transit, and monitor any changes in condition when artworks are loaned and shipped for exhibition. Additionally, the department undertakes research into materials and techniques, including scientific media analyses and interviews with living artists, to better inform conservation decisions and to ensure that the objects continue to convey the artist’s intent.
Conservation science has become an integral part of understanding the material properties of an artwork and how they may change over time. Technical studies result in findings that informs conservation treatment and collection care, while also impacting art historical knowledge and museum practice. Although microscopic sampling of an artwork may occasionally be necessary, analytical technologies have evolved such that many works may now be analyzed on-site, minimizing risk of damage and eliminating the need to remove original material.
To strengthen its research capabilities, the Menil Collection, in an exciting new initiative, collaborates in its scientific research activities with Rice University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Such research exchanges across traditional institutional and disciplinary boundaries, underwritten by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, represent a model for innovative partnerships that increase the scope and quality of research programs at each of the participating institutions.
Many of the issues and problems encountered with preserving modern and contemporary art are unique within the field of conservation. Given the significance of the collection’s holdings in these areas, the Conservation Department also participates in educating future conservators in this specialization, through a post-graduate fellowship supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
With substantial support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (which, in addition to the fellowship, has provided funding for two full-time conservators and consulting objects conservators), the department has grown to its current size of three conservators, a post-graduate fellow, a framer, and a departmental assistant. The conservation studio, with separate spaces for paintings, works on paper, and objects, was a prominent feature from the beginning in the earliest designs for the museum building. The main studio is visible through a wall of windows at the east end of the building. The department’s glass-walled framing studio is similarly revealed through a screen of bamboo on the south side of the Menil.