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A Conservator’s Take on National Traditions

Chloros is currently working on restoring sculptures in the museum’s courtyard. (Photo courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)

by Elyssa Jechow

In an age of constant innovation and novelty, there is also a need to recognize the past, and acknowledge the artistic steps that bring us to the world we live and create in today. Jessica Chloros is a conservator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and was kind enough to provide both information and insight about the museum, discuss conservation and its importance, and explain how it all relates to the preservation of our national traditions.

Elyssa Jechow: First, could you give me a bit of background on yourself? How is it that you became interested in what you do?

Jessica Chloros: I became interested in conservation while I was an undergraduate student at Simmons College in Boston. I was an art history major with a strong interest in studio art. I had a work-study job in the Information Resources department at the Museum of Fine Arts at the time, but it wasn’t until talking to my college advisor about possible careers that I even knew there was a name for what people in my profession do.  I made a lunch date with the head of the objects conservation lab at the MFA to find out more about the field, and by the end of lunch I had been hired to polish silver objects for the European and American Decorative Arts departments.  I was thrilled!

After completing two years of chemistry courses and working in the field for five years to gain experience, I was accepted into the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, which is a three-year graduate degree program. I graduated in 2007 and completed two post-graduate fellowship positions before becoming an Assistant Objects Conservator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM).

EJ: What kind of conservation do you do at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum?

Artworks from around the world, like John Singer Sargent’s Rio di San Salvatore, help museum patrons connect with a variety of cultures. (Photo courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)

JC: The primary goal of conservation is to provide for the long-term preservation of cultural property though activities such as: examination, documentation, treatment and preventative care. As an objects conservator I have the training to work on three dimensional objects made of materials such as: stone, metal, glass, ceramic, wood, bone, ivory, leather, and plant fibers to name a few.  The collection at ISGM is primarily composed of fine and decorative art. Currently, I’m working on a project to clean the ancient marble sculptures that are installed in the interior courtyard of the museum.

EJ: Can you tell me a little bit about the museum and its history?

JC: The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum opened in Boston in 1903. It is a unique museum where the building, collection, and installations were the artistic vision of one woman, Isabella Stewart Gardner. She created a Venetian-style palazzo – complete with an interior flowering central courtyard enclosed with a glass roof – as the setting to display an art collection that she personally acquired and curated. The museum boasts the best collection of Italian furniture in the country, as well as many other masterpieces in a very intimate setting.

The museum also has a variety of programming, from concerts to lectures to art-making activities for children and adults.  In Gardner’s lifetime, the yearly attendance was around 2,000 visitors; now it is 100 times that number. However, in recent years, the increased visitor numbers and programming began to take its toll on the collections, as well as on the building. In response, the museum has just completed a major expansion project designed by architect Renzo Piano. The new addition now accommodates the programming with a concert/lecture hall, exhibition gallery, art studios, café, gift shop, an orientation space, and a 3,500 square foot conservation lab. This new expansion was conceived as a preservation project to relieve over-use of the museum’s galleries.

To fulfill the preservation goals of the new building, several conservation projects were carried out in the historic galleries simultaneous to the construction; most significantly the Tapestry Room restoration and a museum-wide lighting project to improve gallery lighting and window shade systems while also reducing light levels on sensitive works of art.

EJ: How do the programs of the museum enrich national traditions and culture?

JC: The museum also boasts an Artists-in-Residence Program, which was founded in 1992. Artists are invited to come and stay at the museum while they research and experience the collection.  They then typically return at a later date and mount an exhibition based on their residency experience.

The Education Department engages in a school partnership program with local Boston schools within walking distance of the museum. School groups visit the museum a number of times during the school year so that the students form a relationship with the museum’s collection. Students are encouraged to bring their families for free during our series of Neighborhood Nights family events during the summer to share their museum experiences with their families.

EJ: How do you think the preservation of material things lends itself to the appreciation of culture and national traditions?

JC: Without the preservation of our cultural heritage we would lose a significant amount of cultural information and the basis for many traditions.

EJ: It is true that there are definite American traditions, but do you think that it is more difficult for Americans to feel a connection to and appreciation for our traditions?

JC: I think that when I was studying in Italy as an undergraduate in college I would have answered “yes” to this question because there seemed to be culture and tradition oozing from every street corner.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum also engages its visitors with educational programming and contemporary exhibitions, helping them to connect to current traditions. (Photo courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)

However, looking back on this now, I recognize that Italy is a pretty homogenous country compared with the United States, and perhaps it is easier to be connected to your traditions if most of those around you share your particular traditions. I think one of the great things about the U..S is that we have so many different cultural and regional traditions. This may make it seem like we are less connected or appreciative of our [national] traditions, but I think it actually speaks to the richness and variety of American culture.

EJ: Much of the Isabella Stewart Gardner collection is from various places around the world. Why do you think it is important for us to value not only our own traditions and heritage, but also those of other cultures? How do you think being exposed to “beautiful things” helps us to grow as citizens of the world?

JC: Gardner traveled extensively after the devastating loss of her only child.  Traveling to new places and witnessing the art of various cultures helped her to heal. A person’s connection to art can be a very personal experience, but it can have a significant outward effect. Being exposed to the art of other cultures helps one to appreciate that culture and its values. Once we can connect to somebody or their culture, even through art, then they become less of the “Other” and we can appreciate the common ground we share.

EJ: And to wrap things up, a very broad question – why is conservation important to you?

JC: Other than being my dream job, conservation is important to me because it ensures that cultural property will be around for future generations.

Related articles from The Muse Dialogue:

India’s Museums and Galleries: A Definitive Divide

Preserving Touchstones of the Past

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