To see some of the most important work at the Menil, visitors will have to step outdoors, take to the promenade ringing the main building, and stop beneath the portico on the east side, where a soaring window wall reveals the Conservation Department’s main studio. Here, and through the bamboo-screened windows onto the framing studio to the south, visitors can observe the meticulous work of the experts charged to care for and preserve the museum’s 17,000 precious works of art.
Restoring artworks to their prime condition by cleaning and repairing may be a conservator’s best-known tasks, but most of the department’s work goes toward minimizing risks of damage in the first place. In the history of conservation, modern and contemporary art and the materials artists have used to make it pose challenges never imagined by the field’s earliest practitioners.
Working closely with museum colleagues and a variety of specialists to maintain an ideal environment for works of art, conservation staff also mats and frames works for exhibition and storage, prepares objects for transit, and, when artworks are loaned and shipped for exhibition, monitors them for any changes in condition. Meanwhile, to better inform conservation decisions, the department researches materials and techniques and performs scientific media analyses. Since 1990, the Artists Documentation Project has put living artists on camera to be interviewed about their work by staff, who use what they discover to inform conservation decisions and to protect the integrity of an artist’s original intent.
Conservation science has become critical to understanding the material properties of an artwork and how light, temperature, humidity, pollutants, or pests may change them over time. Technical studies can affect conservation treatment and collection care, deepen art historical knowledge, and influence museum practice. In a promising initiative underwritten by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Menil Collection is collaborating with Rice University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, on furthering the science of conservation. These research exchanges model partnerships innovative for crossing institutional and disciplinary boundaries, and increase the scope and quality of research programs at all three institutions.
Guided by the significance of the collection’s holdings in modern and contemporary art, the Conservation Department also participates in educating future conservators, through a postgraduate fellowship, thanks again to support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.