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Robert B. Jacobs Asian Art Conservation Laboratory
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Conservator Kewei Wang

Conservator Kewei Wang cleans a Japanese print from the UMMA collections

Robert B. Jacobs Asian Art Conservation Laboratory

The care and conservation of East Asian paintings

Traditionally, East Asian paintings have been executed on silk or handmade, acid-free paper. These are both thin, pliant, and translucent materials that must be reinforced with one or more layers of a strong, long-fibered paper before being mounted in one of several traditional formats, as an album leaf, handscroll, hanging scroll, or screen painting. A paste from boiled wheat starch—diluted and often fermented to make it even weaker—bonds the layers of paper together. The paints used are mineral or vegetable pigments suspended in a mixture of water and a glue made from animal bones or skins.

Asian paintings are amazingly resilient, and can survive for many centuries, but they are also susceptible to damage from careless handling, changes in humidity, overexposure to light, or insects. In dry air, the paper and silk become brittle and crack, and the paint crumbles or flakes away; but if the air is overly moist, mold can attack the painting. Over-exposure to light darkens both silk and paper, and can break down the animal protein in silk fibers. For these reasons, East Asian paintings are not designed to be displayed permanently. In both China and Japan, paintings are brought out for enjoyment seasonally or on special occasions. At other times, paintings are kept safe, ideally in dark storerooms with thick, fireproof mud walls that that maintain a relatively stable environment throughout the year. Hanging scrolls and handscrolls are rolled up and stored in silk sleeves or wooden boxes, while screens are folded and wrapped in fabric.

In order to ensure that the Museum’s collection of East Asian paintings will survive for future generations, we follow a schedule that allows paintings to rest in storage for ten months for each month they are on view. Thus if a painting is displayed for three months in a thematic exhibition, it next becomes eligible for display after two and a half years have passed.