Many have heard me talk about the time spent being mentored by Jennifer, an Asian Arts conservator, to gain insight into the art of paper conservation. I have known Jennifer now for 4 years and in this time I have been amazed at not only her skill, but her dedication to maintaining the highest levels of professionalism and quality of her work. Knowing many of our clients visit us for our expertise in conservation framing, I thought it may be of interest to learn a little more about Jennifer and the work she does.
Q: Hi Jen, I know you are an arts conservator, do you specialise in any particular area?
Jennifer: Yes, I’m a conservator of works on paper and silk with particular expertise in Asian Paintings, so hanging scrolls, woodblock prints and folding screens.
Jennifer Loubser after conservation treatment with:
“Five Human Relationships, Represented by Five Different Birds”
China, Ming Dynasty, c. 16th Century.
Ink and mineral colors painted on silk
294 cmH x 112 cm W
Collection of Honolulu Museum of Arts
Q: Why did you become an arts conservator?
I knew I wanted to be an arts conservator when I first started my Art History degree and went on an excursion to the Lascaux cave. Once I finished the tour of the cave, they told me that it was an exact reproduction, and that the real caves were being preserved from damage due to exposure to light, oxygen, and even the carbon dioxide in people’s breath. From that moment, I knew my career would be conserving artwork.
Q: How did you come to specialise your particular area?
Jennifer: Ten years later, I had finished my art history degree and worked in numerous capacities, in the arts, in galleries and museums. I then had the opportunity to work as a conservator for the first time. It was all simply about being in the right place at the right time, when there was a flood recovery effort at the University of Hawaii. Ultimately I was able to make this opportunity the focus of my Masters degree. I was introduced to the conservator at the Honolulu Museum of Art, was offered volunteer work and then found it was possible to gain intern points for this. The conservator then offered me a paycheck and so I worked as a specialist in a traditional Japanese painting conservation studio. Hence my focus on Asian art.
Q: The materials themselves are quite different, is that what caught your interest?
Jennifer: Yes, the materials are all hand made and have been refined over thousands of years. These techniques methods have been perfected over generations and centuries, and are accepted and employed in museums around the world. The pigments, even the fibers used for making paper are all hand made, the attention to detail is extraordinary.
Q: You didn’t start with a conservators course, how long was your training and where did you train?
Jennifer: When I was speaking with art conservators about how to go about becoming an art conservator, they all told me: 'The degree is not yet halfway to where you need to be. You really need at the very least five years of practical experience as well .' So I needed to know I could find work in such a small field, before studying for a master's degree.After my Art History degree, Masters courses in preservation and conservation, I worked for seven years as a specialist conservator in Honolulu and South Korea with plenty of study in Japan. I then decided to complete my conservation masters degree in Australia. My masters was in Conservation of Cultural Materials at the University of Melbourne. There wasn’t a degree like that available, in Honolulu. There are only a few places around the world where you can study conservation at this level.
Q: So there’s one in Melbourne?
Jennifer: Yes, it started at the ANU (Australian National University) in Canberra, so when that continued as undergraduate study in Heritage Conservation, the new program emerged as the Masters Degree, in Melbourne.
Q: So you speak those languages?
Jennifer: Yes, especially Korean, as I lived there, I worked there in the same field, looking after museum collections.I had the good fortune to work on 10 meter high Korean Buddhist paintings, screen panels in the Seoul National Palace Museum, and studied with a lacquer master. I then had the chance to work again with Bhutanese monks, conserving several of the Royal family's thangka paintings in Bhutan. They were all incredible opportunities.
Q: Why and when would you recommend consulting with someone like yourself?
Jennifer: There are all kinds of reason, perhaps because an artwork or object has local historical value or even if an item has personal, sentimental value and has suffered wear and tear over the years, or has just deteriorated through time and exposure to the elements.
Q: Should you wait until it has deteriorated?
Jennifer: When you originally notice the first, tiny bit of damage or change, that’s when its best to have an item evaluated, to see if it needs to have its display assessed, or the location. For example, having it de-acidified, if it has some noticeable change, may extend its life for many years. Damage has many causes and can be due to heat, age, humidity, insects or even physical damage.
Q So is it ever too late?
Jennifer: It’s never too late, but sooner is best. If something is obviously happening, if there is any change occurring, it can be much more lengthy and difficult to try to stabilise it, if you leave it too long.
Q: So you aim to stabilise rather than repair?
Jennifer: It is important that stabilisation and repairs are done by professional, peer-reviewed conservators if you value your artwork. The difference between a conservator and a restorer is that we (conservators) work to extend the life of an object, rather than to ‘over restore’. We respect the artist’s original intent, and aim never to interfere with the original artwork by ensuring when we do repairs they are sympathetic and reversible. It is the conservator’s job to know what is original and historical, and to be able to recognise previous restorations.
Where to find qualified conservators, through the national professional association, AICCM.
Q: Could you give an example of 'conservation gone wrong'?
Jennifer: Most people know the story of the Sistine chapel, and the debate over whether it was over-cleaned. Some of what occurs over time becomes part of an artwork’s history. Other factors such as the effects of pollution over time can be cleaned or mitigated through prevention. We (conservators) are not aiming to bring a thing back to the state it was on day it came into being. It is not necessarily so, with an artwork, that it should come to look like new.
Q: Do you see framing as a necessary investment?
Jennifer: Absolutely, especially with artworks on paper; framing plays a vital role in protecting work, to save it from the intensity of ultraviolet rays, especially in Queensland. The damage of the sun on paper is similar to the damage done to our skin. Ultraviolet filters and glazing can really extend the life of an artwork. Framing provides a small micro climate and is the best straightforward approaches to protect and extend the life of a work. Ask for hinges attached to works on paper with reversible conservation grade Japanese tissue and starch paste. The framing should be done using conservation grade materials; pure cotton mat board and UV filtering glazing are vital. They definitely save you damage and money in the long run and extend the life of a work.
Q: Could you give a couple of tips to people who want to preserve and protect precious items?
Jennifer: The most stable place to display something is always the best place, preferably on an interior wall that doesn’t receive any direct sunlight. Stable temperatures are best. Air-conditioning is not as important as circulating air. It’s a good idea to change things up a little, rotate your displays and store and rest your precious artworks for a period of time each year.
In Japan, they have preserved works for many hundreds of years; they rotate the display according to the seasons, never exposing the most fragile items to harsh and changeable conditions.
Just like frames should be made with conservation grade materials, storage boxes and tissue paper should be acid free and archival. You don’t want the storage material to cause damage itself, because it’s not acid free. Always make sure your storage box can effectively protect the precious item from dust as well as humidity and insects and you will have the pleasure and enjoyment of your treasures for many years to come.