Exploring a Different Kind of Conservation

Exploring a Different Kind of Conservation

On a normal day, Julien Nguyen, a sophomore in Painting, can usually be found in the studio, immersed in oil paint and linseed oil. But on the days he spends in the RISD Museum as one of the History of Art + Visual Culture’s Museum Fellows, he’s up to his elbows in vintage women’s shoes from the 1920s. As part of a fall semester internship, Nguyen is working with Conservator Ingrid Neuman in the Conservation Lab. There he’s learning the proper methods for cleaning, preserving and repairing disparate objects in the museum’s extensive collection, working with everything from shoe leather to Grecian marble.

“That’s what fascinates me about conservation,” Nguyen muses. “It’s the materials. You’re actually touching and working with the objects – meaning you get to remove them from the wall and play with them.” That “playing,” of course, is as instructive as it is eye-opening.

“Julien is very talented,” Neuman notes, “but in art conservation you don’t just need talent. You need a certain kind of patience.  And you have to be willing to do things differently than how you learned to do them in art class.”

Nguyen embraces the idea of doing things differently, and enjoys working side by side with his mentor to learn the language of reversible materials, the ethics of conservation and the day-to-day tasks at hand for a museum conservator. So far his favorite project of the semester has been restoring a Greek funeral stele.

“We had to match the paint we were using to the original marble, and looking at it now, I can’t even tell what’s the original and what we added!” Neuman confirms that that’s precisely the point – namely, that the mark of a talented and flexible conservationist ultimately should be invisible.

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