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Interview with the Objects Conservator

Annie Labatt, 2012 Chester Dale Fellow, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters

Posted: Tuesday, July 3, 2012

«I recently had the opportunity to speak with Pete Dandridge, Conservator and Administrator, The Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation, about his work preparing for the exhibition.»

Annie Labatt: Did Byzantium and Islam change the way that you envision this period and this region?

Pete Dandridge: In looking at the technologies involved in the objects for the show, it's clear that there are not strict boundaries between what we consider to be an Islamic tradition and the Byzantine tradition. Very often there is a fluid exchange of technical understanding that is not based on a border or religion or culture. It really is specific to what is an artist's vocabulary. I have always understood that there was conjunction between the cultures, and this very fertile cross-pollination. To see it through a more art historical lens, in stylistic ways, really adds to that.

Annie Labatt: Was there any one object that really expressed that to you?

Pete Dandridge: There really wasn't one object, actually. What Helen [Evans] did was to give us a broad picture of the aesthetic sensibilities, and it is in its cumulative effect that you get a sense of just how rich these cultures were.

Annie Labatt: Did you have a favorite piece in the exhibition?

Pete Dandridge: The opportunity to look at the Grado Ivories all together is extraordinary. They represent the height of both stylistic and technical achievement. It's also special to look at them individually and collectively and to try to understand what the variations are and what might have propelled those differences. Are we looking at multiple hands, or one studio? Do they come from one object? How do they work together? Putting them together really raises those issues and allows us to ponder them.

Annie Labatt: What sort of interaction did you have with the curator, Helen Evans?

Pete Dandridge: Helen made a point of going to each of the specialists in different media—stone, glass, polychrome, enamel. In my instance, it was objects made from ivory, enamels, and metals. She talked with each of us to get a sense, from a preservation point of view, of what the overriding concerns were, such as how the objects were going to be presented, whether they required more specific conditions of relative humidification, whether we needed to be aware of certain sensitivities for a particular object, even about requesting them for loans. Some objects are too delicate to even request for an exhibition. As the exhibition list became more specific, those discussions became more specific as well.

Grado Ivory   Grado Ivory

Ivories of the So-Called Grado Chair, 7th–8th century. Made in Eastern Mediterranean or Egypt. Left: Saint Mark Preaching. Civiche Raccolte d’Arte Applicata—Castello Sforzesco, Milan (avori n. 2); Right: The Prophet Joel. Musée du Louvre, Département des Objets d'Art, Paris (AC 864)

A great example is the Grado Ivories, which come from multiple collections. Different institutions have different concerns and needs for the environmental conditions under which their objects can be presented. Sometimes those conditions overlap, but in some instances they don't. That's when we communicate with the institutions to see if we can identify specific points of overlap in order to group parts of the collection together. So we worked with Helen from an art historical point of view about what should be clustered together. We also looked at them from a material angle, from a preservation point of view. And then we worked with designers to make sure the vitrines could accommodate the specific environments for each of the objects during the course of the exhibition.

Annie Labatt: What was the most complicated object in the show?

Pete Dandridge: We spent a significant amount of time working on the ivories from al-Humayma, Jordan. Those plaques had been recently excavated from a site that had been subjected to a fire. So when they were excavated, they were fractured, and each of the pieces had a specific color associated with it ranging from very light gray to light gray to almost black, depending on how high they were heated during the conflagration. They had been reassembled by the conservators associated with the excavation to give the archaeologists a sense of what they were looking at. The work was very well done for that particular context—using what were absolutely the finest preservation materials—but there were certain refinements in their joining and in their presentation that had not been a concern at that time. We got them here early to try to reassemble parts of them and to come up with a means of backing and supporting them.

When ivory is burned it loses all of its organic material, and much of that material is what serves as a web that gives it its tensile strength. It is sort of the backbone of the pieces themselves. If you remove that, ivory is much more susceptible to breakage. We had to devise a means of giving the pieces additional support so that they could be handled as a single unit, so that the backs could be visible and you could see tooling on the reverse, for anyone interested in their technology. A decision also had to be made about how far to go in the reintegration on the front to bridge areas of loss and provide a sense of the whole. Those are the kinds of things we discussed with the curator and with the owners.

Furniture Veneer Panel before treatment   Furniture Veneer Panel after treatment

Before treatment (left) and after treatment (right). Furniture Veneer Panels, first half of the 8th century. Probably made east of the Euphrates River, excavated at al-Humayma, Jordan. Single sheet of elephant ivory. Department of Antiquities, Amman.

When I went to Jordan I spoke to the curators there about these objects, and about their-long range conception for the reintegration of the pieces into their collections. Using that information, and also consulting Helen and colleagues here, we decided to take a very minimal approach to reintegration. The only time we did any kind of filling was to bridge small losses very specifically, to give the adjoining elements additional physical integrity. Most of those fills were restricted to the backs of the plaques, but if they were visible from the front, they were below the surface of the original so that the viewer's impression is of the original material.

We also had to devise a means of displaying them and providing them with additional support, both during the exhibition and during subsequent handling and display in Jordan. We created these very thin carbon-fibered backings for each plaque that, because of their thinness, don't interfere with our perception of the original dimension of the object but have enough rigidity to sustain their own form. Then we hinged the plaques to their supports like you would hinge a paper object. So they are held in a secure relationship, but could easily be separated from the back—they float on the backing. We tinted the backing to a tone that was unobtrusive but also provided a visual field against which the piece would be observed and seen in a sympathetic way.

Annie Labatt: What site represented in the show would you like to visit, or visit again?

Pete Dandridge: One of the great things about working on the exhibition was getting to go to Jordan and oversee the packing of the ivories and talk to the curators there about their ultimate treatment. It was my first trip to the Middle East and it was extraordinary. I had an opportunity over the course of three travel days to go to Petra, Jerash, and farther north to the Byzantine and Roman site of Umm Qais. It's an amazing site. You are literally right in the northwest corner and you are up at a significant height looking out over the valley of Jordan, over the Sea of Galilee. You have Lebanon and Syria on your right and the Golan Heights in front of you. It's enough to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. It unites an extraordinary ancient and contemporary history, and that force of history is present everywhere you turn. Whether you are in Jordan or the Middle East generally, it surrounds you. It's inspiring and beautiful. I'd go back in an instant.

Annie Labatt: Are there any books you used while preparing for the exhibition that you found to be fundamental?

Pete Dandridge: When in Petra you can't help but be conscious of the fact that all of the Bedouins are still very present there and intertwined in the history of the site. They are an intriguing presence. There is a wonderful book called Married to a Bedouin written by Marguerite Van Geldermalsen. As a Westerner, I found it to be a wonderful Western perspective on that experience and that culture.

Annie Labatt: Do you have any advice for young scholars that are interested in conservation or the medieval field in general?

Pete Dandridge: I think it would be the importance of going to these countries. Whether you are studying African or Asian art, or whatever that culture is, you should make every effort in the world to get there so that it isn't an abstract idea, so that it has a reality, which can be very overwhelming and will undoubtedly influence your perceptions for a long time.

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About the Author

Annie Labatt was the 2012 Chester Dale Fellow in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. She recently defended her dissertation at Yale University. Her research focuses on eighth- and ninth-century Roman iconographies, as well as concepts of Byzantium in twelfth-century Spain.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, on view March 14–July 8, 2012.