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Reflecting on Touch

We’re all finding new ways to stay connected with the people and places we love during these challenging times, but some things have no virtual substitutes. Touch is one of those things. As an object conservator, touch is essential to my work on many levels, and while I always have research and writing to do, cleaning and repairing works of art in the Gallery’s collection—my true passion—simply cannot be done from home.

Jean-Pierre-Antoine Tassaert, Painting and Sculpture, 1774/1778

Jean-Pierre-Antoine Tassaert, Painting and Sculpture, 1774/1778, marble, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.110

Before the Gallery closed in March, you could find me on most days in the East Sculpture Hall of the West Building cleaning Painting and Sculpture, an 18th-century marble sculpture by Jean-Pierre-Antoine Tassaert, as part of Conservation Revealed: The French Sculpture Project. This type of work usually takes place in the conservation lab downstairs, but with funding from Bank of America, we were able to set up a mini-studio in the gallery itself and share the process with our visitors—another passion of mine.

The author speaks with visitors during a daily Chat with the Conservator event in the galleries.

It’s an interesting predicament we find ourselves in now. On one hand, the collection is safer in many ways without visitors. On the other hand, what is the value of a work of art if no one is there to view it? So much of what conservators and museums do is a balancing act between access and safety. What is good for the work of art might not make for a pleasurable experience for the viewer, and vice versa.

Unlike paintings or prints, which can be protected by nearly invisible glazing, many sculptures and objects are just too large or impractical to put behind glass. More than that, sculpture is an art form that is meant to be experienced in relationship to the space that surrounds it, and just like us, it doesn’t “like” to be confined. But sculpture begs to be touched, and this causes problems.

A partially cleaned section shows the impact touch can have.

In addition to the oils deposited through touch, which will eventually darken stone surfaces, our very presence in the galleries is also responsible for the majority of the dust that forms and is deposited onto the works of art. These materials contribute to a dulled appearance, but they also support colonies of microorganisms that can cause additional complications. In a paradoxical sense, my job is to mitigate the impact of touch, and physical presence, with my own touch and presence.

Getting to handle and conserve a work of art such as Painting and Sculpture is an immense privilege, and I miss it greatly right now. I also miss the experience of connecting with you, our visitors. It’s important to recognize that museums and works of art are not as static as they might appear—they are dynamic, and they thrive and change in relation to our presence. A sculpture like this, heavily damaged during the French Revolution and masterfully restored in the years that followed, serves as a poignant reminder of this fact. It is also a reminder, I believe, that while things will inevitably be damaged, get dirty, or fall apart, these changes will not necessarily last forever.

As I sit among the files and photographs related to Painting and Sculpture and the five other marble sculptures that will be treated as part of Conservation Revealed, I look forward to the reopening of the National Gallery of Art and the opportunity to connect with you and the art once again.