Conservation is a set of activities that aims to ensure that visitors today and tomorrow have equitable access to the enjoyment and study of our collections. The museum employs a dedicated team of experts who are responsible for the study, treatment, and care of all works of art and design in our collection. Read on to learn more about what they do!
The museum’s history of collections care dates to the earliest days of the Carnegie Institute. In preparation for the 1907 opening of the expanded museum campus in 1907, more than 200 plaster casts of classical architecture and sculpture made in Italy traveled to Pittsburgh by ship to form the museum’s now famed Hall of Architecture. While most of the Italian sculptors hired to transport and install the casts returned to Italy, Rosario (Ross) Polis remained in Pittsburgh and served until the end of his life as the caretaker of the museum’s cast and sculpture collection (nearly 50 years). The museum’s conservation department was officially founded in 1981 with the creation of a dedicated laboratory space and hiring of its first full-time paintings conservator, Karen Crenshaw. The lab expanded in 1990 with the addition of a dedicated objects conservation laboratory and sculpture conservator. Housed in a 2,000 square foot laboratory, today, the museum’s conservation team possesses specialized training in caring for the diversity of artworks that comprise our collection, including but not limited to sculptures, design objects, paintings, furniture, time-based media, works on paper, and photography.
Preservation includes all actions taken to slow or limit the aging or rapid change of artworks and comprises a large portion of our team’s day-to-day activities. These activities include monitoring light levels and pollutants, engaging in integrated pest management, and developing standards for case design and construction materials used on or near works of art.
Treatment processes can include cleaning, consolidation, reinforcement, stabilization, and protection. Treatment projects of individual artworks are developed on a case-by-case basis and closely with our curatorial team, artists, and other stakeholders to ensure all actions taken support the integrity of the artwork.
Working closely with curators, scholars, and, frequently, living artists themselves, our conservators engage in research activities to deepen their understanding of modern and contemporary artistic practices. Our laboratories are equipped with scientific tools like optical microscopes, polarized light microscopy, X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, and multispectral imaging.
Among the department’s major accomplishments are: the cleaning and restoration by a team of 11 of John White Alexander’s 3,500 square foot Crowning of Labor murals in the museum’s Grand Staircase (1995) led by paintings conservator Ellen Baxter (who worked from 1990 until she retired in 2022); the conservation of the 18 x 24 foot gilded urushi lacquered Chariot of Aurora panels from the French ocean liner Normandie (1997–1998); and the Mellon-funded Time-Based Media Project (2013–2015).
We believe in the power of art and science to inspire curiosity, discovery, and joy. Our conservation team serves as a resource to the Pittsburgh community and cultural heritage field at large and contributes to the advancement of modern and contemporary art conservation through lectures, tours, workshops, and publications. We endeavor to share our work with the public to make conservation accessible to all.
Training and Mentorship
Our team is dedicated to fostering the cultural heritage professionals of tomorrow. Mentorship is an important activity of conservation labs, as supervised experience with professionals is a necessary component of conservation higher education. We are proud of our former interns and volunteers who have gone on to pursue graduate school studies and careers as art conservators in the Pittsburgh region and throughout the world!
If you have general inquiries about conservation or want to know more about how to get involved, we’d love to hear from you—please feel free to reach out!