A New Commitment to Art Conservation
Procopius Church was one of the jewels of sixth-century Gerasa, a Greco-Roman city whose ruins are found in modern-day Jordan. In the 1920s, its ornate floor mosaic was excavated by a joint expedition of Yale and the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem. A few years later, to stabilize it for travel and display, the mosaic was backed with reinforced concrete, then considered a durable technique. But when the heavy concrete began to damage the limestone tiles, the mosaic was placed in storage, where it has remained for decades.
Now, the Yale University Art Gallery is planning to exhibit the Procopius Church mosaic for the first time. Carol Snow, deputy chief conservator and senior objects conservator, is charged with not only preparing the mosaic for public display, but also conserving it for future generations.
The challenge is considerable. The mosaic’s concrete backing has deteriorated and cracked under its own weight. To separate it from the delicate artwork, Snow will use a technique pioneered in laboratories on Yale’s West Campus. Her team will operate a computer numeric controlled cutter to remove the concrete, replacing it with new composite panels that are stable and lightweight. In 2014, the artwork will join another Gerasa mosaic already on display at the gallery.
A growing need for conservation
Bringing more objects into public view is a central mission for the art gallery, which reopened last December following a multi-year renovation. Today, the gallery has more objects on display than ever before. More art is shared through traveling exhibits and loans to other institutions, and numerous objects are integrated into classroom instruction in Yale College. On West Campus, new facilities dedicated to Yale’s collections make it possible to store, study, and conserve works in optimal conditions.
This burgeoning activity makes Snow’s work as objects conservator more important than ever, a fact recognized by Alan Dworsky ’52, a patron and collector who has bequeathed artwork to Yale. Dworsky’s latest contribution has endowed the position of objects conservator, with Snow as the inaugural holder.
“In the present era, perception of the real world increasingly has been based on digital inputs,” Dworsky said. “But lest we lose grounding of our heritages, the need to bring created objects back to life becomes all the greater. That is why I feel so strongly in the importance of the work Carol Snow and her colleagues are undertaking.”
A delicate science
Snow joined the staff of the art gallery’s Conservation Department in 2008 as Yale’s first full-time objects conservator. She and her team, which includes an assistant, a fellow, and several undergraduates, are responsible for all three-dimensional works in the gallery’s expansive collections, and they continuously prepare objects for display, loan, or classroom study. Snow treats artworks made of stone, metals, ceramics, glass, wood, ivory, textiles, plastics, and digital media.
“We cover everything from neolithic sculptures to conceptual pieces such as petroleum jelly artwork by Matthew Barney ’89,” Snow said. (When Barney’s piece began to melt, the artist’s studio assistants taught Snow’s group how to recast it.) “In the coming year, we will treat extremely fragile ancient glass vessels, hyper-realistic fiberglass sculptures, and a Renaissance terra cotta relief that has never been displayed before.”
Conservation of this extraordinary and encyclopedic collection requires a highly talented and resourceful team led by top-rank conservators such as Carol Snow.
Ian McClure, the Susan Morse Hilles Chief Conservator at the gallery, sees enormous potential for the objects conservation team. “Conservation of this extraordinary and encyclopedic collection requires a highly talented and resourceful team led by top-rank conservators such as Carol Snow,” he said. “The Dworsky endowment ensures a succession of conservators for the future, providing long-term care for the gallery’s objects collections.”
(December 2, 2013)