Katherine EREMIN
Harvard Art Museums 哈佛大學藝術博物館

Art Meets Science at the Harvard Art Museums: Case Studies from the Chinese Collections

The Sackler Museum, part of the Harvard Art Museums, contains a rich and varied collection of Chinese art, ranging from Neolithic ceramics and jades to modern and contemporary paintings. Multidisciplinary study with close collaboration between scientists, conservators, curators and art historians is crucial for the preservation, understanding, interpretation and presentation of the collections. The Chinese collections have been an area of active research ever since 1928 when Rutherford John Gettens was appointed as the first scientist in an American art museum. In this presentation, I will highlight some recent projects from these collections undertaken in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies.

A new study of the museums' Chinese jades by renowned art historian Dr Jenny So involves close collaboration with conservators and scientists. Many art works preserve clear pseudomorphs or impressions of organic materials such as textiles and wood which were wrapped around the artefacts or came into contact with them during burial. These provide rare information about the nature and use of ancient Chinese textiles. Detailed study and measurement of tool marks helps to understand original manufacturing and decorating techniques and identify later alterations. Together with non-destructive analysis and x-radiography, this revealed that some key objects are pastiches of ancient components combined in the late 19th or early 20th century. The analytical and technical information will be fully incorporated into the catalog.

The art museums have a strong commitment to training and each year conservation fellows undertake a detailed analytical research project on works in the collections. Recent projects drawn from the Sackler Museum collections include Erlitou to Shang period bronzes inlaid with turquoise, studied by Ariel O'Connor, and, most recently, pottery from the Qijia culture of northwestern China, studied by Elizabeth LaDuc. Understanding of the ceramics was greatly enhanced by Elizabeth's replication of the Qijia vessels and their decoration at the Harvard Ceramics Studio. The exhibition "Prehistoric Pottery from Northwest China" included an online feature with a large illustrated section on the conservation research. Hosted on the main art museums website, this is accessible to the general public as well as to specialists and scholars.

Replication is also an important aspect in an ongoing study of Jun ware flowerpots for an exhibition in summer 2017 organized by curator Melissa Moy. Kathy King, director of the Harvard Ceramics Studio, has created a number of replica vessels using different manufacturing techniques to aid interpretation of the x-radiographs and provide better understanding of production methods. The results will be incorporated into the online feature accompanying the exhibition.

The juxtaposition of art and science in these projects has greatly enhanced our understanding of the art works and our presentation of these to a diverse audience. We are confident that these and future collaborations will continue to strengthen our knowledge of the Chinese collections at the Harvard Art Museums.