Trained at the Museums: Ariel O’Connor

Jun 20, 2014

Ariel O’Connor poses with Edgar Degas’s Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen (1880) in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. Photo: Barbara Owens. 

The Harvard Art Museums have trained scores of museum leaders who have gone on to make remarkable contributions to the curatorial, conservation, and education fields. We offer a number of opportunities for emerging graduate and postgraduate scholars interested in the production and presentation of original scholarship within the museum context. In this regular series of interviews, we catch up with these museum professionals to see where they are now.

Ariel O’Connor was the Samuel H. Kress Objects Conservation Fellow in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies from 2010 to 2011. Last month, she was back on campus to present the research she did as a recipient of the Baird Fellowship.

Q What is your current position?

A I’m an assistant objects conservator at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Our conservation lab performs treatments and research on a wide range of objects, spanning ancient times to the early 20th century. Today, for example, I photographed an intricate Japanese enamel and silver bowl for an upcoming exhibition, took samples of the gilding and lacquer layers from a large 19th-century Thai Buddha for materials analysis, took samples of white enamel from a 15th-century rock crystal casket to determine if the white flowers are a later addition, and continued treatment on several archaeological Egyptian bronzes to prepare them for travel to Germany next fall.

Q Can you tell us about your experience as a fellow in the Straus Center?

A Because of my interest in Asian art, I spent the majority of my fellowship year researching the Harvard Art Museums’ collection of Chinese inlaid ceremonial weapons. The collection is one of the most comprehensive in the world and had not yet been thoroughly studied. The support and assistance I received from the Straus Center made my fellowship year a truly memorable and rewarding experience. My discussions and collaborations with conservators, curators, and scientists helped me develop the theories that I would later test during my travels made possible by the Baird Fellowship.

Q After completing the Kress fellowship, you were assistant conservator for the Winthrop Jade Project. Can you tell us about that project and your involvement?

A Working with Katherine Eremin, a conservation scientist in the Straus Center, I performed technical analysis on 67 Chinese jades from the museums’ Winthrop jade collection. We investigated tool marks using silicone molds and scanning electron microscopy [in which a microscope takes images of a sample by scanning it with a beam of electrons], identified minerals using Raman spectroscopy [which gives information about molecular vibrations that can be used for the identification of samples], identified characteristics of surface alteration and artificial staining, and found evidence of archaeological burial and ancient re-use of objects. This research will be incorporated into an upcoming book on the history of Chinese jades and jade working technology, written by Dr. Jenny So. With the help and expertise of the museums’ Peter Schilling, an incredibly skilled jade carver, a reference collection of nephrite and jadeite samples was assembled from jade sources around the world. This collection is now accessioned into the Straus materials database and will be available for future fellows and scholars.

You received the Baird Fellowship to support a research project after your time at the Straus Center. Can you tell us about the work you did with that award?

A My research during the Kress Fellowship identified four types of turquoise inlay that decorate Chinese ceremonial weapons from the Shang dynasty (c. 16th–11th centuries BCE). With the generous resources of the Baird Fellowship, I was able to spend six weeks traveling to China to study similarly inlaid ceremonial weapons from known archaeological sites. My goal was to see if the different styles of turquoise inlay that I identified on the museums’ weapons were also seen on the excavated examples in China, and if I could draw any conclusions about those differences.

Q How did your training at the Harvard Art Museums prepare you for the work you are doing now?

A I learned numerous new treatment and imaging techniques, such as using lasers for cleaning, but the training that I use every day is how to think creatively when approaching any conservation treatment or research project. I remember [conservator] Tony Sigel repurposing a Tupperware container with adjustable Velcro straps into an apparatus to safely remove old restorations from a large Greek vase. I remember pondering new and unusual ideas about Chinese bronze casting with [director] Henry Lie and [research curator] Francesca Bewer, and together constructing an iPhone microscope from the lens of an old DVD burner. These interactions have influenced my nontraditional approach to conservation and technical art history—and have prepared me to address any treatment or research question with an imaginative slant.