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Painstaking task of making a 200-year-old sculpture look almost like new

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Conservator Robert Price cleaning Painting and Sculpture by Jean-Pierre-Antoine Tassaert at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Washington

ROBERT Price was in a corner of the National Gallery of Art's East Sculpture Hall last week breaking one of the cardinal rules of museums. He was touching the art.

Perched on a wheeled stool under a bright spotlight, Price leaned into a 200-year-old marble sculpture carved by Frenchman Jean-Pierre-Antoine Tassaert, his gloved right hand using a cotton swab to remove decades of grime from its base. With ear buds helping to block out his surroundings (delivering a mix of Louis Armstrong and true-crime podcasts from his smartphone), the 32-year-old conservator twisted a fluff of cotton onto a wooden stick, dipped it in a special water solution and painstakingly worked it over a small area of marble. He repeated the process, again and again and again, for hours.

For the next 15 months, Price will be working in the skylighted hall, cleaning and restoring a half-dozen French sculptures while simultaneously offering visitors a peek into a critical but largely unseen aspect of museum work: conservation.

Behind-the-scenes opportunities

"People love these behind-the-scenes opportunities," said Shelley Sturman, senior conservator and head of object conservation at the National Gallery.

"We want to get people excited, let them see it in action." The audience interaction element is a perfect fit with new director Kaywin Feldman's emphasis on visitors, Ms Sturman said. The project was conceived before her appointment, "but we have had Kaywin's support from the beginning," she said.

To encourage visitors to stop and watch, the museum has set up two monitors on the periphery of the cordoned-off area where Price will work from Wednesdays through Fridays from 10 to noon and from 2 to 5 pm.

One screen displays a six-slide explanation of the project, running in a continuous loop. The other shows the feed from a video camera outfitted with a zoom lens that is focused on Price's hands.

Price said he's looking forward to having an audience, although he said it won't change how he works. "I'm just going to do my job. I'm not putting on a show," he said.

Price will interrupt his work at 1.30 pm each day that he's in the gallery to take questions from visitors. One day last week, he was asked about the cleaning solutions he uses - mostly water with a raised pH level, he explained - and the steps involved. One guest wondered about the source of dirt (mostly oils from the hands of visitors, he said), while another wanted to know how he knows when to stop.

"We're not trying to make it look new," he explained. "It's more about minimising the damage so it's easier to appreciate it." The project is a first for the National Gallery of Art, but not for the museum field. The Smithsonian American Art Museum, for example, has a glass wall in its conservation lab that invites visitors to observe what happens there. Other museums have done conservation projects in their galleries, too.

Price pitched the idea to his department after encountering it in other museums. "I'm super-excited. I'd be excited to do it in the lab, but I really enjoy talking to people, explaining what I do," he said.

The first of the six works to be restored is Tassaert's Painting and Sculpture, which requires the most treatment, Price said. About three feet long and two feet wide and weighing 690 pounds, the 18th-century piece depicts a young child standing and holding a canvas and paint palette, while a seated second child leans against a bust and holds a sculpting mallet. Price expects to spend four or five months on this artwork.

He began last week by dusting and vacuuming the surface and photo documenting its condition. The next step is to clean it with the pH-adjusted water that will remove dirt without damaging the stone. He will work incrementally, on small sections with various water solutions, he said, noting that certain areas might require a mild detergent. "It's layer by layer," he said.

The bulk of the time will be spent improving earlier restorations, Price said, including work on the ankle of the seated child and the nose of the bust.

He will excavate those materials first, working carefully to avoid damaging the original stone. Restoration materials have improved since the 1950s, when this piece was last treated, so his additions will better match the color and translucence of the original, he said.

A delicate balance

It's a delicate balance, he said, to improve the overall condition without making it appear brand new. "We're constantly in touch with curators, (other) conservators, looking at it, at the other sculptures," he said.

In the spring, he will move across the hall to Poetry and Music by Clodion, a similarly sized work. The final four sculptures are larger, but will require less intervention. They are Justice by Barthelemy Prieur, Calliope by Augustin Pajou, A Garden Allegory: The Dew and Zephyr Cultivating Flowers by Benoit Massou, Anselme Flamen and Nicolas Rebillé, and A Companion of Diana, by Jean-Louis Lemoyne, a work originally conceived for the gardens of a Louis XIV chateau.

There are other reasons to work on the sculptures in the gallery. The works are large and heavy, so moving them is difficult and accommodating them in the lab is tricky. And if they were taken into the lab for treatment, a substitute of similar size would be required to maintain the gallery's symmetry, and the museum doesn't have extra large-scale marble sculptures at the ready.

Price said working in the gallery allows him to compare his progress to the other works on view, which is a plus. Conservators like to treat a work in the same light that it is displayed under, he added. They can re-create the gallery light in the lab, he said, but it's never exact.

The project is one of 22 conservation efforts funded this year by Bank of America through a programme that has distributed about US$20 million worldwide for more than 170 projects since 2010. "It's an expense that museums bear on a regular basis, and it's a way to help them keep their collections in top form," said Rena DeSisto, Bank of America's global head of arts and culture.

The project's audience engagement piece is an added benefit.

"We like to see conservation having a light shown on it," Ms DeSisto said. "It adds an extra layer of attention from the public, from the perspective of 'Gee, conservation needs to happen. I didn't realise that.' " WP