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Conserving for the Future

For objects conservator Beth Edelstein, every object tells a story
Beth Edelstein, Conservator of Objects
October 19, 2017

 During my last year of college when I was applying to graduate programs in psychology, I read an article about the conservation of a painting of the Crucifixion at a local museum. A conservator had removed darkened varnish and discovered the black sky was actually a deep blue. That was a revelation. I’d never thought about the intersection of science and art—two areas I was fascinated by, independently—and I was hooked.

So I changed my mind about graduate school, and instead traveled to Florence, Italy, to begin studying art conservation. After Florence, I attended graduate school in the United States and then obtained a Mellon Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Met hired me and I stayed there another ten years. I left the Met this past spring, and the move to Cleveland has been just what I had hoped it would be.

A number of things intrigued me about Cleveland. One was the high quality of the collection. Met colleagues who learned I was coming here said things like, “Wow, what an amazing collection that is. You’ll get to work on so many excellent things.” At the Met, like in Europe, the field is more specialized, so conservators focus more narrowly on different materials or areas of the collection. It’s wonderful to develop such strong expertise, but I also like being able to jump around a bit more. For example, working on The Jazz Age was exciting because it’s an object-centered show, with a lot of interesting and unusual materials.

The conservation lab’s next major project involves the massive sandstone Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan. We’ll install a hoist and gantry for lifting the pieces of the sculpture apart and reassembling them in a different orientation to accommodate adding a new piece that came to us through the government of Cambodia. The reinstallation of the British galleries is driving a lot of conservation work these days, and we also have a plan for reinstalling the museum’s Italian crèche figures.

I did a lot of outreach when I was at the Met, and I’m excited to continue that work here. This country doesn’t always value the past. I believe we can start to change that by encouraging young people to think about how important it is to protect objects from our collective history. Conservation begins with a simple observation and question: “Okay, somebody made this—how and why?” And everything that follows that moment of creation is written into the object itself. A conservator is the lucky one who gets to unlock those secrets by asking the same questions as an archaeologist or a criminal investigator. What happened here? What’s the story?  

Cleveland Art, November/December 2017