There is a lot of work that goes into preparing an exhibition, even the relatively small shows that go on view in Gallery One. Much of the work is not exactly glamorous—hours spent in libraries paging through deteriorating volumes covered in 100-year-old dust, or hours spent removing 100-year-old dust from a work of art—but it can still be very exciting (seriously)! When Lulu Lippincott, curator of fine arts, first had the idea to exhibit our early Japanese print collection, she wanted to present the works in a different context than they have been shown at CMOA in the past. Remembering that both our collection and our neighbor’s (Carnegie Museum of Natural History) contained a number of Japanese ivory sculptures in storage, we thought this would be an excellent opportunity to bring the two mediums, woodblock prints and ivories, together in one exhibition exploring the early history of collecting Japanese art at this museum. The exhibition, “Japan is the Key…”: Collecting Prints and Ivories, 1900–1920, will be on view March 30–July 21, 2013, in Gallery One.
A key figure in our story is ketchup magnate Henry J. Heinz, an avid collector who donated over a thousand ivory sculptures to the museum. While the majority of these are small-scale works ranging from two to 14 inches tall, there is one that soars above the rest—a life-size ivory eagle measuring nearly four feet tall. Heinz purchased the work for the museum in 1913 during his travels throughout Asia and it had been on continuous view until the early 1990s. For those of us who can’t remember or who have never seen the giant eagle, it is easy to be stunned by the sheer size of it; knowing that it is constructed out of such a precious material only adds to its magnificence.
Having spent nearly 20 years in storage, the giant eagle has accumulated layers of dust and other particulates on its surface. Thankfully, it was kept in the original case built for its display in 1913 which has managed to offer some additional protection over the years—although the two jars of pesticides which were sealed inside offered a rather… malodorous surprise when it was opened for cleaning. Over the next several weeks, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s objects conservator Gretchen Anderson and her team of interns will be analyzing and cleaning the eagle before it goes into our exhibition. As a rare treat, the team will work in full view of the public and, yes, they do take questions! You’ll be amazed by the resourcefulness of objects conservators and stunned to find out their use of common household materials, such as makeup sponges and chunks of a Magic Eraser to remove the grime.
Next time you visit the museum, skip the PaleoLab (just this once) and head up to the third floor’s Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians (at the back of Polar World) where you can see this team of conservators in action. They’ll be there 10 a.m.–4 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays for the duration of the conservation. If you don’t get a chance to see it being cleaned, it will be on view March 30–July 21, 2013, in Gallery One as part of the exhibition!