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Conserving old master drawings: a balancing act

Museums play a key role in preserving old master drawings for future generations. These delicate artworks undergo careful examination and treatment by conservators. Techniques include using ultraviolet light, microscopic analysis, and special solutions to reduce damage. The goal is to minimize distractions from the original design, not to make the drawing look new. Created by Getty Museum.

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Video transcript

A fundamental role of a museum is to care for its collection and preserve it for future generations. European drawings from the 1300s to the late 1800s -or old master drawings- are particularly vulnerable- they are on paper and hundreds of years old. Conserving an old master drawing is a balancing act. All drawings have their own set of condition issues that need to be assessed individually. Here, a Getty Conservator carefully examines a 500-year old German drawing. She first removes the drawing from its mount (or support). She inspects the drawing lit from below. This makes it easier to see the marks left by the wires of the paper mold; stains; a watermark; a tear- with a darkened area that shows where it had been previously repaired; and at the corner, the shadow of the piece of paper that had been used to attach the drawing to a mount. Next she examines the drawing under ultraviolet light. The brown spots are called "foxing." These are marks left by mold. Finally, she studies the drawing under a microscope. Now, the conservator tests the solubility of the ink to ensure it won't bleed during treatment. She places the drawing on a vacuum table, a device that extracts the liquids used in the treatment, out of the paper. She uses this small brash to apply an ammoniated water solution to reduce the brown "foxing." This solution subtly releases the color of the foxing, which distracts from the appearance of the drawing. She carefully alternates the application of ammoniated water with that of ethanol, in order to reduce "tide lines"- irregular lines or blemishes left behind as the ammoniated water solution dries. Wearing magnifying lenses, she examines tears and prepares them for mending and reinforcement. She takes the piece of Japanese tissue and carefully applies wheat starch paste to mend the tear. Japanese paper has very strong fibers, is chemically neutral, and can easily be identified and removed. She allows the paste to set by putting the drawing between blotters and weighing it down with glass blocks and weights. To complete the conservation treatment, the entire drying is humidified and then placed under weights with blotters to remove the moisture and flatten it. This process extends over a two-week period and the blotters are repeatedly replaced to facilitate drying. The goal of conservation isn't to make a drawing look "new" again. Rather, it's to safely reduce the damage that distracts from the design and bring the sheet closer to the artist's original intent. Evidence of age is still present, but now recedes into the background so that you may focus on the drawing.