Challenges of Conservation: The Mysore Album Cover Project

November 11, 2010

This late-nineteenth-century album cover, intricately carved in India, was crafted from fragrant sandalwood. When acquired, the outer section of the front edge was missing. This visual distraction kept most viewers’ eyes from being fully engaged in the artistry worked into the wooden cover.
My challenge was to make the album cover look more unified with a carved replacement for the missing section. On a “restoration difficulty” scale of 1 to 10, this was a 10!

Before conservation treatment. The entire outer section of the front edge, on right, was missing.

Challenge #1: Finding the Right Material
I hoped to use a plank of sandalwood for the replacement, but after an intense search, came up empty. Sandalwood was a very desirable wood in past centuries but is now very, very scarce. Instead I experimented with several hardwoods, finally selecting Koa wood from Hawai’i for its similar color, grain pattern, and ease of carving.

Challenge #2: Making the Template
Work began by carefully making cardstock templates. Using calipers to measure for each row and design series, I drew reference points and pattern lines to ultimately replicate the original designs of the existing album cover on the template. The designs were stretched or shrunk to fit the template and, finally, on the Koa wood itself.

During treatment. Calipers were used to compare the sandalwood original with the Koa wood replacement for accuracy.

Challenge #3: Tiny Tools for a Tiny Job
Next, I tried to purchase tools small enough to reproduce the tiny carvings, but was unsuccessful. I resorted to altering a few tools, including a mini scalpel blade, 1.5mm u-gouge, paring chisel, and 3mm gouge with skew chisel edge. I used a 7X magnification loupe as I worked row by row.

During treatment. The Koa wood replacement was carved with modified miniature tools.

Challenge #4: Finishing the Project
When the carving was complete, the Koa wood was cut to length with precision angles, and mortises to lock into the album cover. The next step was to apply a thin layer of shellac to seal the Koa wood surface. After drying, I applied a chestnut-toned water-base natural dye and watercolors onto the shellacked surface, toning to blend with the original album cover

After treatment. The carved Koa wood replacement was fit in place with mortises and toned to match.

Jean Neeman, Senior Conservation Technician

In the Land of Snow Lions, Phoenixes and Dragons

November 10, 2010

Tibet still harbors some portion of Shangri La in the imagination, sitting as it does in the high plateau north of the Himalayas where the peaks of its sacred, snowy mounts dissolve into the mist above. The land’s sheer vastness and grandeur form the backdrop to the amazing collection found in the exhibition In the Service of the Buddha: Tibetan Furniture from the Hayward Family Collection. Chests and tables, cabinets and bookstands, trunks and offering tables—bright and jewel-like in the softly lit, ashen brown, tent-like space of the gallery.

Installation view, In the Service of the Buddha: Tibetan Furniture from the Hayward Family Collection, Photo © LACMA/Museum Associates

Tibet is a world of extraordinary diversity and beauty where great rippling sand dunes are edged by giant green forest, extended treeless plains of feather and quack grass where nomadic tribes live in black yak-wool tents. And then there are the flattop stone dwellings covered in multi-colored pray flags and their monasteries dotted throughout the land, all in the worship of the Buddha.

Installation view, In the Service of the Buddha: Tibetan Furniture from the Hayward Family Collection, Photo © LACMA/Museum Associates

Installation view, In the Service of the Buddha: Tibetan Furniture from the Hayward Family Collection, Photo © LACMA/Museum Associates

Acquired last year, the Hayward Collection covers 1,100 years, from the ninth to the twentieth century, of Buddhist life and worship. Each piece speaks to its genealogy, whether from a monastery, a merchant, or a fold-up piece made for a nomad. This is charmed furniture of exquisite craftsmanship; strikingly, the wooden furniture with its individual images in gold cartouches of auspicious deities, snow lions, dragons and phoenixes, and ritual tantric offerings that protect the contents or bring luck, have a certain humble appeal that the metal sculptures of the same origin don’t achieve. Even the marvelous thangkas, with their sometime inscrutable intricacy, can put the viewer at a distance. But the wood is familiar, and the tactile nature of the objects are known entities, merely made to hold something precious. The wood’s uneven and lived-in surface, its gorged and pitted grain, its visible rivulets mark its time in that service. But in their new, other life as luminous art objects, the furniture crosses cultural borders and addresses its beauty to us.

Hylan Booker

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