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Art Conservators at Work: A Living Exhibit

Paper conservator Kate Maynor scrapes old paper and adhesive off a fragment of a print at the Lunder Conservation Center in Washington, D.C.
Alison MacAdam, NPR
Paper conservator Kate Maynor scrapes old paper and adhesive off a fragment of a print at the Lunder Conservation Center in Washington, D.C.

Art conservation isn't much of a performance, but conservators in Washington, D.C., are about to become a living exhibit.

Six-and-a-half years ago, the building housing the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery closed its doors for renovation. The 180-year-old building reopens to the public Saturday and now features something unprecedented in American museums: a public conservation lab.

You could call it the art hospital -- a place to examine, clean and repair the museum's collections.

On a recent visit, Kate Maynor hunched over a table, her eyes pressed to a microscope. She was scraping away old paper and adhesive from a tiny fragment of a 20th-century print called "Lame Man" by African-American modernist William Johnson. The picture came to the museum glued to old, brittle matting.

There was nothing unusual about Maynor's task, except that she was at work in a studio with floor-to-ceiling glass walls.

Once the museum building opens, visitors will be able wander up to the third-floor mezzanine to the Lunder Conservation Center and see what happens to paintings, prints, sculptures and frames when they're off the wall.

Elisabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, says the center is the first-ever, permanent conservation facility in a museum, where "the public can watch all of the excitement that goes on behind the doors of the lab."

Videos outside the glass wall provide background on the craft. Inside the glass, the conservators say they're not sure yet how they'll feel about doing their work in public.

There is a shade they can pull down, if absolutely necessary. Object conservator Helen Ingalls says she's worried about making mistakes and will be guarding against what she calls her "mistake face."

Broun stresses the conservation lab is about education and not about putting on a show.

"It's not magic. It's hard work, serious study, based on science, experiment with techniques, procedures and materials," she says. "It shouldn't be presented as magic. And we're not performers."

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