Helping the mute stones sing: Achieving an aesthetic resolution

Patricia S. Griffin


The Egyptian collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art contains the first objects that the museum collected-purchased in 1914 two years before the museum opened. Therefore, Egyptian art has always been associated with the institution and a much-loved part of the Cleveland Museum experience. For this reason, the collection was one of two chosen to be reinstalled as part of a “Convening the Community” project, supported by the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund. The newly installed Egyptian galleries were opened to the public on September 24, 1999. It was a collection reborn.

This rebirth came out of the extraordinary collaboration between curators, conservators and designers, which developed a shared sense of aesthetics that affected decisions regarding conservation and display. For the reinstallation, the reliefs were treated with a respectful eye toward their current fragmentary condition. New mounts were designed to support the fragments on the gallery walls, allowing them to be lit to best advantage. This approach not only enhanced their monumental, sculptural quality, but also revealed the subtle modeling of the surfaces and enlivened the remaining colors. The conservation of the stone reliefs proved to be the most important factor in achieving our aesthetic goals.

Early treatment of the sculptural reliefs – formerly architectural decoration from tomb and monuments – included squaring the fragmentary edges using a combination of inserts or blocks made from stone or wood, and/or plaster of Paris applied directly to the stone. The reliefs were then framed in wood and hung or sunk into the gallery walls creating a veritable picture gallery out of the fragments. The negative effects of this methodology were twofold: first, the reliefs were presented and viewed as complete, freestanding depictions rather than as fragments; and second, the finely carved surfaces were considerably flattened, visually diminishing their impact. In some cases, re-assembly and fills were inaccurate or damaging, thereby changing meaning and appearance in fundamental ways.

An important step in the recent conservation of the reliefs was removing the old plaster repairs to expose the jagged outlines consistent with their fragmentary state. Many months were devoted to the painstaking tasks of freeing the images from the layers of plaster, as well as treating the reliefs to make them safe for display and more coherent to the viewer.

Considerable thought went towards developing an approach to filling and toning of losses. The goals were to create visual coherence and to unify the fragments in each relief without distracting from their distinct style and beauty. Fill compensation ranged from no intervention to full integration of missing elements. Decisions were on a case by case basis with curatorial consultation. Upon close inspection, restorations are readily visible. All materials used for filling and inpainting were carefully chosen for stability, good aging properties and reversibility. The results of this approach have restored both meaning and vitality to the reliefs – resurrecting them as fragmentary monuments to Egyptian craft and culture and treasured masterpieces within a museum context.

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