The Art of Mending Ceramics Disasters | Conservation Lab

How object conservators return fractured ceramic shards to their original glory.

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May 3 2016, 9:25pm

In art institutions across the globe, time machines and investigation rooms exist behind closed doors. Dusty artworks go in and come out looking centuries younger; artists’ secrets are brought to light; and hidden, unfinished images emerge from behind famous compositions. Every week, we'll peek beneath the microscope and zoom in on the art of preservation, where art meets science and just a little bit of magic: this is Conservation Lab.

Imagine trying to solve three puzzles at once. Now, imagine all the pieces mixed together in one big pile: That was roughly the challenge facing Penny Bendall in 2006, when the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum called upon her to fix three 18th century Chinese vases that a visitor crashed into after tripping in a nearby staircase. He was unscathed; the vases, however, were not. “There were over 500 shards in total with many tiny chips and enamel glaze,” recalls Bendall.

Undaunted, the conservator got to work—cleaning the porcelain shards, mapping which pieces belonged to each vase, gluing them back, filling in areas of loss, and retouching the paint wherever necessary (for a detailed slide show of the reassembly, click here).

Conservation of white-ground Lekythos (oil flask) from Athens, Greece, 450-445 B.C.E., at the Worcester Art Museum. Bonding process at left, inpainting at right.

Ten months later, the vases were back on display. “The challenge with a project like this is 'the half meter rule.’ If you are standing closer than half a meter, you should be able to see the restoration work, but further away than that it shouldn't be noticeable,” Bendall explains. To achieve this, she used an epoxy resin along the break lines that reflects light the way porcelain does, tricking the eye into seeing a unified whole.

Terracotta black-figure Amphora, Greece, 515 B.C.E., during conservation (left) and after conservation (right) at the Worcester Art Museum.

The other challenge, one might add, is that anything a museum conservator does must be reversible, so they are restricted to materials that are removable. As this is a constantly evolving field, such policies ensure that today’s restorations do not hinder the work of future conservators. At the Worcester Art Museum, objects conservator Paula Artal-Isbrand recently dismantled three ancient Greek vessels that had been poorly restored before their acquisition. In order to figure out how to approach disassembly, a conservation scientist helped identify the chemical composition of the older adhesives. Artal-Isbrand was then able to proceed, turning the vases back into dozens of archaeological fragments, only to put them back together again—with modern methods and a more refined hand.

Fragmentary red-figured stamnos, from Attica, 5th century, B.C.E., at the Worcester Art Museum. A painted plaster fill, visible at right, was added during restoration.

One of the Greek vases, a red-figured stamnos from the 5th century B.C., raised some ethical questions. Less than half of the object survives, leaving it unstable, with most of the weight distributed on one side. As a rule, “conservators preserve what has survived, and do not invent,” says Artal-Isbrand. In this case, however, it was deemed acceptable to at least partially complete the vase’s silhouette with plaster fill, since scholars know these vessels are always of the same shape. “It looks unfinished, but it’s an honest presentation,” she concludes.

Digital model of the V&A’s Meissen fountain with water simulation by Patrick Neubert. Screencap from this video of conservation process.

With the advent of 3D printing, this type of “loss compensation” can get even more sophisticated. An incredibly ornate 18th century table fountain—13 feet in length and originally used by German count Heinrich von Brühl to delight guests at an extravagant banquet—recently went on display at the V&A in London after extensive restoration. Conservator Reino Liefkes led efforts to produce accurate digital models of several missing pieces, which were then 3D-printed or machine milled. The physical models, in turn, were used to create plaster molds for the clay. You can watch the whole process here.

Meissen table fountain at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, before conservation (above, screenshot via) and after conservation (below).

There’s something decidedly therapeutic about these accounts of broken, incomplete bits made whole again. With incredible patience, careful research, and creative thinking, ceramics conservators teach us that all is never lost.

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