Susan Costello, a project conservator at the Harvard Art Museums, has been working at a breakneck pace to prepare objects for the museums’ newly expanded galleries, opening in November. The astounding selection of objects that she has treated (more than 150) span millennia, ranging from a limestone relief of an Egyptian tomb (c. 2320–2160 BCE) to a sculpture by Argentine artist Carmelo Arden Quin titled Lignes Noires (1952).
Costello’s familiarity with the museums’ diverse collections runs deep: in 2004–5, she was the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies’ Advanced-Level Objects Fellow, one of the museums’ many opportunities for training museum professionals. Since returning to the museums in 2012 to ready the collections for the opening, Costello has performed treatments on objects from each of our three museums, with projects that have included replacing a handle on a Wilhelm Wagenfeld sugar bowl (c. 1924–25), restoring a 12th-century French wooden sculpture, and fixing former repairs on an ancient Greek drinking vessel (c. 530 BCE).
Some conservation treatments need only a basic surface cleaning, which takes just a couple of hours; other projects are much more complex, like that required for the Turkish ceramic Dish with Foliate Rim and Grape Cluster Design (c. 1540–55). Through the dish’s long life, it had been broken and repaired, its overpaint had deteriorated, and it had become stained. After consulting with Mary McWilliams, the Norma Jean Calderwood Curator of Islamic and Later Indian Art, Costello removed the overpaint, revealing that, other than its major breaks, the ceramic was in good condition.
Through the overpaint removal process, it became clear that at some point in the dish’s lifetime, a conservator had applied his or her own design to the object—a valuable piece of information about the ceramic’s history. Costello was able to remove the plate’s considerable stains through a variety of techniques that involved using steam, a laser, and solvents. In total, it took approximately two months for Costello to complete this impressive treatment.
Another stand-out treatment that Costello performed was for Seated Leonine Chimera (c. 550–618), a Chinese funerary sculpture. At one point in this fragile object’s life, someone drew eyes onto the animal with pencil, over the original black paint that was visible underneath the graphite drawing on its left eye. After Costello removed the pencil, she discovered that the right eye was almost completely missing and would need to be restored. Costello developed a reversible solution in which a new eye was painted on a very thin piece of Japanese tissue—a process she likened to making a contact lens for the sculpture— which was then toned to match the color of the original left eye.
Though Costello has up-close knowledge of many of the objects that will be on view in November, she is still excited about the final installation. “I’m looking forward to seeing the objects in relation to what’s around them,” she said. “In conservation we work on one object at a time, so we don’t get to see them in their curated groupings. Seeing them together in that way, as well as in the new gallery spaces, really influences the way a person views a work of art.”