Student curators highlight conservation

The Yale Center for British Art is hosting a student-curated exhibit series titled “Art in Focus,” which focuses on art conservation.
The Yale Center for British Art is hosting a student-curated exhibit series titled “Art in Focus,” which focuses on art conservation. Photo by Sarah Eckinger.

In the sixth year of “Art in Focus,” a student-curated exhibit series at the Yale Center for British Art that opens one show annually, student curators brought art conservation to the forefront for the first time.

Organized by the Education Department of the British Art Center, the program joins students with curators, both from the center and from outside organizations, in order to devise a small exhibition. While students have looked at historical themes in British art in past years, this year’s exhibit — titled “Gazes Returned: The Technical Examination of Early English Panel Painting” — focuses on the technical aspects of examining paintings, museum educator Jessica Dilworth said.

The exhibit features four wood panel portraits from the Tudor era, student curator and head student guide Ilana Harris-Babou ’13 said, adding that the works are among the oldest paintings owned by the gallery. The students used the techniques of dendrochronolgy, X-ray spectroscopy and close analysis with microscopes to examine the works and understand the various alterations the paintings underwent since their creation, Babou added.

The four student curators worked with the conservation department to choose the theme of the exhibit, as well as the paintings that would be put on display, assistant paintings conservator Jessica David said. She added that the students each chose a different approach to translating conservation techniques into a display, such as examining the pieces’ historical context, structural support, complexity of the paint layers or use of technological equipment.

In addition to benefiting students interested in learning about museum curation, David said the conservators also saw the paintings in a fresh light as they explained conservation techniques and practices to the students. One of the students asked a simple question about the x-rays taken of a panel painting, she said, which led to the discovery of a gold leaf border around the work that had been painted over.

“This exciting discovery only happened because we had fresh eyes looking at the painting,” David said. “It potentially changes everything we know about the portrait as it associates it with a group of privately owned children’s portraits in England that were not attributed to this artist.”

The British Art Center’s conservation department is currently studying the museum’s holdings of Tudor and Jacobean portrait paintings for a research collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery in London, David said, noting that the accumulation of data about the four pieces featured in the student exhibition will be incorporated into the project.

The exhibit will run through July 29.

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