Caring for Cultural Treasures

Caring for Cultural Treasures

Museum intern Margaret Finaly 16 CR and conservator Ingrid Neuman meticulously dust an ornate lady's writing table and chair made by the Gorham Manufacturing Company in 1903.

Anyone who has fantasized about getting locked into a museum overnight and having free rein to explore can understand the pure joy that rising senior Margaret Finaly 16 CR tapped into last semester as a fellow at the RISD Museum. As part of her liberal arts concentration in the History of Art + Visual Culture (HAVC), she worked closely with Ingrid Neuman, an object conservator at the museum.

“Ingrid takes me into the storage area, and I get to see objects up close that other people never see,” says Finaly. “I’m like a kid in a candy store!”

Neuman works one-on-one with fellows and interns from Brown and RISD every year, eager to customize the experience for each student. Since Finaly is majoring in Ceramics, the two worked together on care, research and documentation of pieces as diverse as an unattributed devotional sculpture of Madonna and child dating back to the 15th century and Frieze, a site-specific door surround artist Tom Otterness created for the museum in 1982.

“As an art student, Maggie is comfortable using her hands,” says Neuman, “so she can help with delicate conservation work. Right now she’s applying methylcellulose to the flaking paint on this statue in order to prevent further loss.”

We’re upstairs in Neuman’s office/studio, but since it’s a Monday, the museum is closed and it’s time to head downstairs into the galleries for some cleaning. All of the objects on display require meticulous dusting with soft goat-hair brushes. Today’s challenge is to remove ambient dirt and pencil marks from the Otterness piece.

“This place is full of treasures. [...] I'm sure that the contact with all of this incredible art affects my own work.”
Margaret Finaly 16 CR

“You don’t want to use a lot of water on painted plaster,” Neuman explains as she and Finaly get to work using eraser-like Wonder sponges. “All dirt is not the same. This is greasy dirt from people’s hands.”

When the Otterness is once again pristine, we stop to admire a newly acquired copper-plated aluminum side chair by British architect David Adjaye. “We expect the piece to oxidize over time,” Neuman notes, “but we want it to oxidize evenly. And sometimes we simply have to accept imperfections.”

“This place is full of treasures,” says Finaly. “I love getting to examine everything so closely, like the porcelain pieces by [German manufacturer] Meissen. I don’t intentionally copy work that I see, but I’m sure that the contact with all of this incredible art affects my own work.”

Finaly is just about done with her HAVC requirements and says that the background has been essential to her growth as an artist. She was particularly taken with a Renaissance art class taught by Lecturer Suzanne Scanlan and is looking forward to finding time between Ceramics studios next year to squeeze in a class on Japanese aesthetics.

Although she’s undecided about her post-graduation plans, Finaly is happily spending the summer teaching ceramics at an all-girls camp in Maine and thinking about working full-time in a museum someday. “I don’t think I’ll pursue object conservation,” she says, “but I would love to work in a museum environment. And this internship is a great opportunity for every student, even if you have no intention of working in a museum after graduation. I mean, how many art schools have a museum like this?”

text by Simone Solondz / photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH

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