Conservation at the Gardner Museum

Over a century ago, Isabella Stewart Gardner gave her Palace and collection to the city of Boston, with a bequest that it be preserved and protected "for the education and enjoyment of the public forever." Today, carrying out this unique vision requires special care in preserving the collection and the historic building—with the result that careful research, evaluation, and conservation remain a vital part of the Museum’s activities. 

Isabella’s legacy requires that her complete collection—spanning more than 30 centuries—be maintained as she arranged it. Gardner Museum conservators face unique challenges such as the arrangement of the galleries, many of which are near the sunlight-bathed central courtyard, and having the installations on permanent view. Conservators do daily battle with light, dust, and time, working to preserve ancient, fragile, and light-sensitive objects in the collection.

Objects conservator Holly Salmon works on a sculpture in the conservation labs
Objects conservator Holly Salmon works on a sculpture in the conservation labs.

The Field of Conservation

Throughout its history, the Gardner Museum has demonstrated a strong commitment to conservation. Beginning in the 1930s, the Gardner, along with the Museum of Fine Arts, the Fogg Art Museum, and the Worcester Art Museum, led the way in researching and conserving works of art, laying the foundation for what was to become the field of modern art conservation. At the core of the principles established at that time is the idea that conservation treatments are best undertaken through careful research of the materials that make up a work of art and a thorough understanding of its physical condition. 

Foremost among the Gardner’s early conservators was George Stout, who established the Conservation Department in 1933 and was an early proponent of a more rigorous scientific approach to the treatment of works of art. Along with his colleagues, he conducted pioneering research into artists’ materials and process by which works of art degrade; in response, he devised innovative treatment methods. As director of the Gardner from 1955 to 1970, Stout strengthened the Museum’s commitment to preservation, a legacy that continues to the present day.

Textile conservation in the labs at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Textile conservator Tess Fredette examines delicate fabrics.

Stabilizing the Museum Environment

Over the last two decades, the Museum has undertaken major initiatives including the introduction of state-of-the-art climate control, which established a stable environment for the collection. More recently, a project to upgrade lighting and modulate daylight throughout the galleries was undertaken to improve the visibility of the collection while protecting it from excessive light. In addition to the treatment of individual works of art, conservators have also executed whole gallery projects restoring the installations to their original splendor. 

Desk being worked on in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum conservation labs
Furniture Conservator, Melissa Carr treating a desk.

Cutting-edge Techniques

The Conservation Department is staffed with trained conservators specialized in the treatment of objects, paintings, and textiles. They collaborate with the Museum’s curators to carry out conservation treatments and technical analyses on works of art, and establish standards for the long-term preservation of the collection as a whole. Technical research conducted on a work of art can lead to a greater understanding of its material composition and the artist’s creative process. 

To that end, conservation is constantly increasing its treatment and research capabilities with equipment such as lasers, digital infrared imaging equipment, x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) and reflectance transformation imaging (RTI). The purchase of a digital format camera for the capture of high resolution infrared, ultraviolet and visible light images has enabled the conservators to undertake a systematic examination of paintings in the collection, a technology that can reveal the artist’s preliminary under-drawing and working changes. 

In 2007, a laser cleaner for the cleaning of stone objects, including marble and alabaster, was acquired; the conservation department is one of the few labs in America actively using laser equipment to clean objects in the collection. In addition to using the most advanced techniques, conservators today, recognizing that in the future, preferences and standards may change, make choices with reversibility in mind.

An ornate frame being worked on in the Isabella Stewart Gardner conservation labs
Frame conservator Allison Jackson works on an ornate frame in the lab.

The Fine Art of Close Examination

According to the conservators, a large portion of the work of restoration is, quite simply, careful looking. Objects must be considered in context, not in isolation. Conservators collaborate with the curators to understand the piece from a historical perspective. In some cases, that means understanding why certain objects are placed in proximity, particularly during holistic, whole gallery restorations. Careful records have been kept, so the conservators start with the treatment history file to understand restoration work previously undertaken, its current condition, and the level of damage or wear. And sometimes, if too much is unknown, or conserving a piece risks damaging it further, the decision is made to leave it as is—“you never put a work of art at risk.”

Objects conservator Holly Salmon reduces discolored varnish from the gilt surface of a cassone in the conservation lab at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Objects conservator Holly Salmon reduces discolored varnish from the gilt surface of a cassone

The Poorvu Family Conservation Center

Today, the Poorvu Family Conservation Center is housed in the New Wing, and occupies most of the fourth floor of the new building. It is here that staff members treat a range of works, including paintings, objects, and textiles. 

Take a behind-the-scenes look inside the Art Conservation department.

Noteworthy Conservation Projects

Over the decades, hundreds of paintings, sculptures, and textiles have been restored. A few of these can be explored below. 

Learn how the beautiful tapestries that line the walls of the Gardner Museum's Tapestry Room are cleaned and restored.