When I told Marjorie Shelley that I was surprised just how scientific her work in the Museum was, she let out a laugh. "People often say that," she said. "To a great extent, conservation is the study of materials—how they're created, and how they change over time. All of that is science." Shelley is the Sherman Fairchild Conservator in Charge of the Department of Paper Conservation at The Met, so she knows of what she speaks.
Despite its small size, the department supports curatorial departments across the Museum. Beyond conserving works on paper in The Met collection before they go on view or out on loan (no small feat, that), these five conservators consult on acquisitions of new works and the authenticity of attributions, investigate mysteries of artists' processes and materials, and collaborate with curators and scientists to enhance our understanding of art history. They speak with ease on topics ranging from x-ray fluorescence, medical imaging, and synthetic gels that lift mold from paper, to the chemical properties of ancient pigments, the majestic air of a Delacroix sketch, and the techniques by which a forger ages paper.
In one such instance, described in "A Tale of Two Sultans," the bequest in 2008 of a drawing by Jean Honoré Fragonard provided an opportunity to compare the newly-acquired sheet to a known forgery in the Museum's collection. When the curator brought both versions to the department, Shelley instantly noticed the different paper supports. "In a handmade sheet of paper, the fibers collect along the mold lines," she relayed to me. "And a machine-made piece of paper, made with what's called a dandy roll, is put along a conveyor belt and is imprinted with a design." The presence of both works—the original and a "forgery of exceptional skill"—in the same collection now provides an instructive example for students and connoisseurs.
More often, though, the conservators—Shelley, Rachel Mustalish, Yana van Dyke, Marina Ruiz-Molina, and Rebecca Capua—bring their research and knowledge to bear in ways that return aged and damaged works nearer to their original condition, so that they can be perceived as the artist intended. Martin Bansbach, the senior manager for installation and matting in the department, crafts elegant presentations for these works, bringing them to life in the galleries.
"We have examples of what we're doing almost throughout the Museum at this point," Shelley said—and yet, visitors to Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer will struggle to locate the crease expertly removed from Daniele da Volterra's drawing of a sleeping figure. Such is the nature of their work, which, when done with care, often disappears into the art.
Perhaps most intriguingly, in their restoration of thousands of years of art, the conservators glide between techniques employed for millennia to those that use cutting-edge tools. With more than a million works on paper in The Met collection, this small team focuses their efforts on works going on view at The Met or on loan to other institutions. This means that investigations and conservation are conducted either on a strict deadline, or over the course of many years.
On the day I visited, preparations were underway for upcoming exhibitions of Delacroix, Leon Golub, and Armenian manuscripts. Each object must be analyzed independently and exhaustively before a single move is made. But is this true even when they're working on a number of similar works, say, by Delacroix?
"Oh, absolutely!" Shelley said. "It doesn't matter who the artist is or how similar the works are. You can have two Rembrandt prints and one has survived in perfect condition, whereas the other is extremely brittle or has been mishandled and in the wrong environments." Every work has its own history, which can only be understood through exhaustive research, and the conservators always determine their plan of action with respect for this history in mind.
"That's the idea," van Dyke said. "Physically stabilize the object and get it to a place where it can be studied, exhibited, and handled, so scholars can access things."