Art Conservation Class Emphasizes Analytical Processes

Aviva Blonder, Staff Writer

A team of art conservators is currently working meticulously to clean and conserve Frederick J. Wiley’s 1917 painting of a mass, known as “King Sculpture Court,” which completely covers the Allen Memorial Art Muesum’s main ceiling. Heather Galloway, visiting professor of Art History and one of the chief painting conservators involved, is incorporating the project into her art conservation class, ensuring that museum visitors and Oberlin students alike will benefit from the improvement.

Named after the AMAM’s first curator, Hazel B. King, “King Sculpture Court” emulates 16th century French style in its isolated depictions of foliage and animal designs, and includes 19th century text from verses by the transcendentalist Christopher Pearse Cranch. Conservation efforts to prevent deterioration of the large painting began in 1998, but have intensified since then.

The AMAM approached Galloway to teach the class three years ago with the intention of bringing together students from art and science departments. “Most of us have a background as historians — art history in my case — all of us have backgrounds in studio art, and we have to take science classes in order to get to graduate school,” said Galloway.

Because students in the class are prohibited from mounting the scaffolding to see the ceiling directly, they spend an hour and 15 minutes each week in the museum discussing other paintings. The curriculum includes learning how paint chemically ages, examining objects and learning about the general cleaning and reconstruction process.

Students work with the museum’s staff of professional historians who have been researching the space, as well as conservation scientists who have done crosssectional analysis. “No one of us can come up with all the right answers, which I personally enjoy,” Galloway said. “One of the things I like about my job is working with other experts.”

College junior and Chemistry and Art History major Liora Mael is one of three students currently in the class who is interested in entering the field of art conservation.

“I wanted to be a doctor for a very long time, and then I started making books in high school in one of my art classes,” she said. “One of my sisters said, ‘Liora, why don’t you become a book doctor?’”

Mael, who claims to rarely listen to her sister, decided to explore the path of art conservation in response to her suggestion. She emailed experts in the field and visited Galloway and her colleagues at the Intermuseum Conservation Association in Cleveland.

“[Art conservation is] an evolving field, so we’ve been doing a lot of historical readings, and also preservation briefs and case studies of what people have done,” said Mael. “We’ve been looking at a lot of different works, especially in the Allen — what’s happening with them and what they have had done and what could be done in the future.”

Galloway outlined one of her goals for the class: “[I hope students will] recognize that there are multiple people involved [in art conservation] and that they all have different strengths that have to rely on each other for decision making,” she said.

One of Galloway’s favorite aspects of teaching the class is when her students point out aspects of paintings she had never explored. “I love looking at art with students to see where my field succeeds and fails with the public,” she said.