history of conservation


Behind the scenes at major art museums, conservators are hard at work, keeping masterpieces looking their best. Their methods are meticulous — and sometimes surprising.

The painting conservation studio at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is filled with priceless works sitting on row after row of tall wooden easels, or lying on big, white-topped worktables.

The studio is where I first met Senior Conservator Ann Hoenigswald years ago as she was fixing the sky on one of Claude Monet’s impressions of the Rouen Cathedral in France. Bits of paint had flaked off over time, and Hoenigswald was carefully mixing her blue to match the old master’s. Seeing the painting outside of its fancy frame, it felt like being inside the artist’s studio. (I greatly wanted to try my hand at filling in some tiny bare spot in Money’s sky, which had once been covered by paint. Of course, the thoroughly professional Hoenigswald politely refused to hand over her brush.)

Conservators must take classes in studio art, art history and chemistry. Sometimes guidance comes from artists themselves. For example, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, asking for specific shades of paint — Prussian Blue, Ultramarine, Geranium Lake. Painters in earlier centuries rarely left such clues.

With Chemistry And Care, Conservators Keep Masterpieces Looking Their Best

Photos: Liam James Doyle/NPR


The Brain Scoop
Wolves can be… Coy

Wolves and humans have a prehistoric relationship - and it’s complicated, to say the least. Between the 1600s and the mid 1960s, nearly every wolf in the lower 48 states was completely wiped out; the eradication of wolves was largely encouraged by government-issued bounties and extermination programs, carried out by farmers and ranchers who saw wolves as threats to their livestock and families.

But after the gray wolf received protection by the Endangered Species Act in1974 and populations started once again spreading across the United States, a funny thing began happening. The wolves - unable to find and therefore breed with other wolves due to scarcity of individuals - ended up breeding with coyotes instead.

And now, there exists a huge amount of confusion about some of these populations; wolves and coyotes are hybridizing at a rate faster than can be detected through scientific studies or can be managed by wildlife conservation laws and programs. How much DNA of an endangered species does an organism need to have before we consider it endangered itself? How can we enforce laws and regulations to manage - or restrict management - of population growth? 

We spent four months working on this video and it’s the most comprehensive episode we’ve ever made for The Brain Scoop. We even got the grossometer back in there. I hope you like it- and please do share! 

Preserving the Migration of Giants: Guyana's Arapaima
Conservation scientist Dr. Lesley de Souza is working with the people of Guyana to establish a new protected area. Their goal is to safeguard a watershed for...

The Brain Scoop:
Preserving the Migration of Giants: Guyana’s Arapaima

Dr. Lesley de Souza is a conservation scientist here at The Field Museum. Recently she’s been working in Guyana alongside the local people with the goal of creating a protected area.

One animal in particular, the arapaima, is a massive and threatened fish that uses flooded forests for breeding- but there was little known about where they go, and how they use these waterways in the rainy season. So, she decided to track them by inserting radio transmitters into the fish - and today, she and her collaborators are one step closer to establishing a natural preserve in the country. 

~*ngl I actually cried during this intervieeewwww, no shame, I love fish*~ 


The Apollo 11 command module, which took the first moonwalkers to lunar orbit and back in 1969, is undergoing a painstaking restoration, in preparation for an unusual national tour later this year.

Until recently, the capsule sat in the main lobby of the National Air and Space Museum, where it had been since the museum opened in 1976. Conservator Lisa Young says that occasionally workers would open up its Plexiglas case to look it over or put in new lighting.

“But it never really went under a full examination or investigative analysis as to all of the certain materials on there, how stable they are,” says Young, who is working on the spacecraft now in a restoration hangar at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., outside of Washington, D.C.

“Our big job as conservators right now is to figure out, if we are going to put it back on display permanently, what could be happening to it in 50 years,” says Young, who wants to prevent future deterioration.

Moonwalkers’ Apollo 11 Capsule Gets Needed Primping For Its Star Turn On Earth

Photos: Shelby Knowles/NPR and NASA/Getty Images


Explore behind the scenes at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Conservation Laboratory, where objects in the collection and exhibition loans are expertly conserved. In this video, Laura Mina, associate conservator in The Met’s Costume Institute, offers a close look at an 18th-century court suit.

People Shouldn't Buy the Right to Steal Your Land
Native Americans have seen this monster before.

The involvement of the indigenous populations in both the United States and Canada in the opposition to various pipelines, including the Keystone XL, should come as no surprise.

As we have said, the abuse and misuse of the eminent domain process in the construction of the pipeline here has been an effective organizing tool to bring together environmentalists and ranchers to oppose the project. And if it is nothing else, the history of the native peoples on this continent is the greatest example of eminent domain abuse in human history.

They know better than anyone the feeling that greater forces from the outside can overwhelm and threaten long-standing ways of life.

On Tuesday, in a basement ballroom of a downtown hotel, the Ponca, Santee, Omaha, and Winnebago peoples organized a treaty among themselves, and several other tribes, expressing their opposition to the pipeline.

From the start, here and in Canada, the indigenous peoples of the continent have been at the heart of the opposition to projects like this one, most visibly during the extended confrontation over the Dakota Access pipeline. In Nebraska, the alliance between Native Americans and ranchers, particularly over issues of eminent domain, not only was shot through with remarkable historical je ne sais quoi, it was a pragmatic decision based on common interests.

People shouldn’t buy the right to steal your land. The Native people are familiar with this phenomenon and with how angry its victims can become…


Have you ever wondered how a museum goes about spring cleaning? Here we see our Gallery Maintenance team members Hilary Wang and Alisa Lenander scaling the heights of our galleries to vacuum our stunning Persian rugs. Using low suction vacuums and nozzles handmade for conservation, the team regularly cares for our rug and tapestry collections, some of which are several hundred years old. In this way, we keep them in stable condition while on display and limit the accumulation of dust.

Reptile watching at Zealandia!!

These are two of my favorite reptiles and it was amazing to spot them both in the same animal sanctuary!

The top is the Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), one of the rarest reptiles on Earth! Though it looks like a lizard, it isn’t! This amazing critter is a member of the order Rhynchocephalia, which flourished roughly 200 million years ago but has since gone extinct - with only this one exception. Found exclusively in New Zealand, the Māori traditionally believed them to be messengers of Whiro, the god of death and disaster. Today they are considered a Taonga (sacred treasure) to their people.

The bottom is a Wellington Green Gecko (Naultinus elegans punctatus), found only in the lower half of New Zealand’s North Island. They bask in the day but typically hunt in the night, munching on flies and moths. They also bark when threatened.


Gallery and Storage Maintenance Technician Hilary Wang is removing green biogrowth from the Meudon Monument at the Rodin Museum. She uses small bursts of hot pressurized steam to carefully clean the porous limestone and a cotton rag to absorb the soiled run-off. Removing the biogrowth seasonally prevents it from becoming a large problem down the road.