Encountering the unexpected in Southeast Asian lacquer: Treating the Doris Duke Collection at the Walters Art Museum

Stephanie Hulman, Meg Loew Craft, Terry Drayman-Weisser, Dr. Glenn Gates, Michael R. Schilling, and Herant Khanjian


In 2002, the Walters Art Museum received a gift of 153 objects of Southeast Asian Art from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Many of the objects originated from Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) and were created in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2014, the Conservation Division embarked on a three-year grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to treat 16 of the objects that were previously identified as conservation priorities. These objects exhibited varying degrees of deterioration due to age, flood damage, and prior intervention. Many of the lacquered and gilded surfaces were actively flaking, and a majority of the objects were covered in an unusual sticky brown coating. Prior to removal, the coating was identified as modern due to the inclusion of a synthetic plasticizer. Additional information was collected about the decorative techniques that were used to create the surfaces through cross-section microscopy, x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, and pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy. There were also questions regarding the visual reintegration of loss and how much inpainting was appropriate. Research travel to Thailand and Burma helped to address those questions in conjunction with input from museum professionals in the region.

Due to space constraints related to the large size of many of the objects, much of the treatment work was completed in view of the public in an open conservation lab. Over the course of the grant period, over 5,000 museum visitors were able to speak directly with conservators and see many of the objects during treatment. While furthering the strong history of public outreach at the Walters, the open conservation lab also created unique challenges for conservators in terms of materials and working methods which in turn shaped the treatment protocols. Once the initial analysis was complete and the treatment work began, it was readily apparent that Southeast Asian lacquer behaves differently than East Asian lacquer. The largest issues were encountered with consolidation and cleaning. For those objects that required consolidation, polar solvents such as ethanol and acetone distorted the lacquer, which limited the consolidant options. Lascaux P550-40TB (butyl methacrylate resin) was selected in some instances because it could be dissolved in solvents like mineral spirits and xylene. Additionally, the extreme lifting of the flakes and the inability to move the objects into horizontal positions necessitated the use of cast sheets of adhesive that could be reactivated with solvents once in place. Removal of the sticky surface coating was possible with a water gel on some of the gilded lacquer objects, which was advantageous because so many surfaces were extremely solvent sensitive and the work was being completed in the public. In some instances, polar solvents were safe to use and removed the coating quickly without the need to clear the surface of gel residues. It is hoped that the information gained from this project will be a catalyst for future research and study regarding the treatment of Southeast Asian lacquered objects.