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‘Art doctors’ help keep the collection healthy at Smithsonian American Art Museum

They use scientific tools to maintain and repair the museum’s art collection.

Keara Teeter, a conservator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, examines a restored painting by William H. Johnson that will be included in an upcoming traveling exhibit. Teeter and six other conservators repair and maintain artworks at the museum using tools such as X-ray and lasers. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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The conservators at the Smithsonian American Art Museum are called “art doctors.” They use some of the same equipment as physicians, often wear white lab coats and care for the injured. However, unlike regular doctors, their patients never squirm or say “ouch.”

“We X-ray art to see how it’s made and practice preventive care,” said Amber Kerr, the head of conservation, listing a few of the similarities. “And if something’s broke, we fix it.”

Kerr is one of seven conservators who work in the museum’s Lunder Conservation Center. The center opened in 2006 as the country’s first conservation lab on permanent public view. Before then, museums hid pieces that didn’t look their best and repaired them behind the scenes.

“It was not something the museums talked about — the problems of the artwork and the challenges of the upkeep,” she said.

In the spirit of sharing, the museum invites visitors to watch the conservators mend paintings, three-dimensional objects, works on paper and frames from their glass-walled labs on the third floor.

On a recent afternoon, Leah Bright, an objects conservator, was caring for two pieces at her workstation. A fragment of James Hampton’s “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly,” a massive sculpture made of furniture, cardboard, lightbulbs and other items often found in your home, was under a microscope. Bright pointed out holes in a small portion of the aluminum foil that covers the artwork. She explained the cause of the damage: Plastic covering the foil was releasing acidic gas that was eating away at the silvery material.

“We will document the changes and try to stop it,” she said.

The other item was a carved stone sculpture of Venus, an ancient Roman goddess, which had two broken legs. The previous owner had tried to fix the limbs with metal rods and adhesive (glue), but the staff had noticed the sculpture rocking back-and-forth at the joints.

“It was not safe,” Bright said.

To stop the swaying, the conservators used flugger, a type of filler, and acrylic paint they mixed to resemble the color of sandstone.

“We tried a number of different paints,” Kerr said. “Stone is difficult to paint.”

In another room, Keara Teeter, a painting conservator, was inspecting two works from William H. Johnson’s “Fighters for Freedom” series. The paintings are part of a traveling exhibit scheduled to leave the museum in January. Teeter was preparing them for the journey — first stop: South Carolina — by retouching areas where the paint had flaked off and adding glass in the frames to protect the works from humidity and other environmental hazards.

Teeter had spent 30 hours on one painting, but fixing some artwork takes a lot longer. Thirty years ago, a visitor scribbled pencil on a Morris Louis painting. For years, conservators tried to clean the painting.

“You can’t throw it in the washing machine like a shirt,” Kerr said.

Technology has finally provided a solution. The “art doctors” have lasers to remove the scribbles, and Kerr said she’s excited to return Louis’s painting to good health.

This story is part of a series about lesser-known aspects of the Smithsonian Institution, which celebrates its 175th anniversary August 10.

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