Art preservation for posterity

Image: Sarah Melching conserving Geographical Map of Great Ming, Japan, 1681, gift of Wesley and Linda Brown. © Denver Art Museum.

At the Denver Art Museum, an incredible Ming Dynasty map stood at the center of this year’s Linking Asia: Art, Trade, and Devotion exhibit. Spanning 10×12 feet and drawn in brilliant color, the map is a striking peek into Asia’s past. Created in 1681, it was commissioned to memorialize the landscape of this part of Asia as it looked some 35 years earlier. According to Sarah Melching, Silber Director of Conservation at the Denver Art Museum, it is a “map of nostalgia.” Thanks to Sarah and her team, the map was exhibited and published for the very first time earlier this year.


Elements of history


As the Silber Director of Conservation, Sarah plays a key part in preserving the Denver Art Museum’s history and enriching its future, through preserving and caring for all the objects on display and in storage.

Founded in 1893, the Denver Art Museum is one of the largest art museums between Chicago and the West Coast. Along with its world-class collections, the museum prides itself on presenting art in a way that audiences can participate in and be transformed by it.

Within the conservation department, the museum has several specializations: art on paper, photographs, paintings, textiles, archaeological and ethnographic objects, modern and contemporary art and electronic media. Sarah oversees the entire group, as well as its projects, resources and timelines. She brings over 30 years of experience to the craft of conservation, as well as specialties in photographic materials and works on paper.

Sarah’s passion for art is palpable as she discusses its societal and historical significance. “Seeing a collection of art can be perceived as a rarified or select opportunity, but really it’s so much bigger than that. It’s about what was happening economically, politically, culturally and socioeconomically at that time,” she explains. For Sarah, her main priority is preserving what she calls “elements of history.”


Art in context


The Ming Dynasty map showcases history, artistry and science—three disciplines that Sarah refers to as the “holy trinity of expertise” for conservators.

Before conservation work can begin, Sarah and her team study the materials and methodologies used at the time of the artwork’s creation. “It’s so important to understand the historical context of a piece,” she explains. When one of the museum’s Spanish colonial paintings was recently selected for a Bank of America Art Conservation Grant, Sarah and her team traveled to Mexico City. They spoke with curators and scientists on how the piece would have been created and exhibited at the time, and then brought these methodologies back to Denver to conserve the work.

Depending on the type, size and condition of a piece of art, the conservation process can take up to 200 hours or more. When a piece of art is being conserved, experts will assess its condition, perform a thorough examination and meticulously photograph the piece for documentation. It’s also important to make sure that the treatment plan is reversible, so that the piece is not permanently changed. Conservators undergo ethical training that helps guide their decisions throughout this skilled process.

With the Ming Dynasty map, Sarah’s team worked to stabilize the map, reduce creases, repair tears and restore color in areas that where paint had flaked off. The 10×12 foot map took two weeks to complete and underwent extensive fiber and pigment analysis. The map was on originally on loan to the museum, and was ultimately gifted after the donor saw the impressive results from Sarah and her team.


Enriching the future


In addition to preserving pieces of history, The Denver Art Museum is helping to define the future of conservation through their work in electronic media preservation. Since 2011, the museum has been one of the leading institutions in this relatively new and variable field. Recently, the museum received an IMLS grant to continue their work in this area. “The challenges are distinct,” Sarah explains. “A video made in an analog format is now battling technological obsolescence, so our job is to figure out how to honor the intent in how it’s played back and presented and migrate it to a more stable format.” She adds, “This is an opportunity for our team to preserve for future generations.”


Conservation for private collectors


Future generations of art enthusiasts, whether observers of works at the Denver Art Museum or curators of their own private collections, will have a wealth of resources at their disposal.

“So much has changed within the last 30 years as far as resources go,” says Sarah. Technical research and analysis is increasingly important for helping distinguish forgeries and giving greater insight into authentic pieces of art. Analytical tools are on the rise and are becoming standard equipment. “All these tools can be made available to help collectors and museums create and preserve the content of their collection in a meaningful way,” she reflects.

For private art collectors interested in conservation, especially those who are trying to grow a particular area of their collection, Sarah recommends having a combination of experts who can identify, authenticate and preserve any given object. She also recommends that they turn to the American Society of Appraisers as well as the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. Both organizations follow a code of ethics, have standards of practice and can offer information and advice.

Looking toward the future, Sarah points out that the influx of information and new analytical tools has also spurred an exciting shift: a rise in collaboration within the art community and the conservation field. “I want to help foster new generations of conservators,” Sarah says. “I love sharing the process and information with young people, and framing it in a context that is relevant.” These advances in conservation today only energize her mission to help educate and preserve art for generations to come.

Sarah Melching is Silber Director of Conservation at the Denver Art Museum.