"To be a good conservator, you need to think of yourself as a three-legged stool," Amber Kerr-Allison, a paintings conservator who works in at the Lunder Conservation Center explains during a public tour. "One leg is science, the second is art history and the last is studio arts. You need to have a strong foundation in each of these areas."
The conservation center, located in the same building that houses the which shares the Reynolds Center building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery (and is operated jointly by the two museums), is the first museum facility in the country where the public can continuously view conservation work. Each Wednesday the conservators offer tours of the facility. Yesterday, it was Kerr-Allison's turn. She didn't mind; actually, her job at the center is a direct result of these tours. A woman was so inspired by what she saw on the tour she donated enough money to create the fellowship Kerr-Allison now holds.
She moves through the frame studio, the paper lab and the objects lab before trekking upstairs to her home base, the paintings conservation studio. A kiosk with specialized information introduces each studio. Videos and before-and-after photographs of pieces that have been worked on are also available on the center's Web site.
On the way, she pauses to explain how certain techniques are used. In a field dominated by jargon, Kerr-Allison breaks down the terms—gesso paste, vacuum table and raking light—for those less well-versed in the vocabulary. She explains the last term using a comparison almost anyone would understand. Raking light is like the light produced when kids hold flashlights under their chins at camp. Both illuminate small imperfections that normal, bright light hides.
Farther down the wall, a display explains how ultraviolet light and x-rays are used to analyze an artifact's history. " have all lived lives," Kerr-Allison says. "It would be a lot easier if the objects could just tell us what happened to them. But they can't." It's a bit like forensic science. Kerr-Allison and her colleagues embrace the CSI feel of their work; they have even taken a picture posed like the cast. After all, Kerr-Allison says, the public really gets into that comparison. "People love that show," she says.
Exposing the public to the normally hidden work of conservation is one of the main objectives of the Lunder Conservation Center, and the floor-to-ceiling glass walls aren't the only way the center does that. In addition to tours, the center uses Twitter to tell followers what is being worked on in the studio and offers clinics where people can bring in works of art from their own collections and talk to conservators about preservation. The public tour is offered every Wednesday at 3 p.m., but the center is open from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. everyday.