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Robert B. Jacobs Asian Art Conservation Laboratory

The Robert B. Jacobs Asian Art Conservation Laboratory is a distinctive and specialized resource that provides UMMA with the unique ability to care for its collections of nearly 400 Chinese and Japanese paintings and more than 7,000 prints and drawings in a laboratory space designed for public viewing.

The Conservation Lab serves institutions and individuals worldwide, and it specializes in providing conservation services and mounting or remounting for East Asian paintings and for Asian and Western works on paper.

The Robert B. Jacobs Asian Art Conservation Laboratory was founded in 1987 with a grant from the Starr Foundation, through the efforts of Marshall Wu, then Senior Curator of Asian Art. From the outset, the mission of the Conservation Lab has been to serve as an integral part of the teaching and research functions of the Museum. 

Conservation on Display

Through a floor-to-ceiling glass wall, Museum visitors can see and learn about conservation work being conducted in a secure, environmentally controlled lab. UMMA is the only university art museum in North America to boast such a facility.

Asian Art Conservation Lab

The Robert B. Jacobs Asian Art Conservation Laboratory at UMMA accepts commissions from institutions and individuals for the conservation and mounting or remounting of East Asian paintings and for Asian and Western works on paper, with the exception of photographs.

Potential clients are urged to download and complete the Information Request Form and email it to umma-conservation-lab@umich.edu. Please include photographs as requested on the form. This will allow the conservator to provide a preliminary analysis of the work needed and an initial quote, which may need to be revised upon first-hand examination.

After receiving and inspecting a work of art, the conservator discusses possible treatments, including the potential benefits and challenges of each. The conservator respects the age and style of the original painting, print, or drawing, and suggests repairs that will extend the life of the work. The goal is not necessarily to make the work look new, but rather to protect its viability well into the future using treatments that are reversible and archivally sound.

Each treatment requires the written consent of the owner of the artwork. When the treatment includes a new silk mounting, the conservator and client collaborate on the choice of colors and patterns. When necessary, UMMA will obtain mounting silks from Japan or China.

Every treatment proposal will include a discussion of the time required for conservation, based on the type of treatment. Depending on the condition of the artwork, the treatment process may require from one month to one year to prevent future warping or other damage.

The cost of treatment is determined by the hours of labor needed and, for silk or fabric mountings, by the cost of materials. Treatment commences when a deposit has been received for 50% of the total estimate.

Clients are responsible for the costs of transporting works to and from the laboratory, as well as insurance costs during transport. Please note that neither the Asian Conservator nor the Curator of Asian Art may appraise the market value of a work of art.

Traditionally, East Asian paintings have been executed on silk or handmade, acid-free paper. These are thin, pliant, and translucent materials that must be reinforced with one or more layers of a strong, long-fibered paper before being mounted in one of several traditional formats, such as an album leaf, handscroll, hanging scroll, or screen painting. A paste from boiled wheat starch—diluted and often fermented to make it even more chemically inert—bonds the layers of paper together. The paints used are mineral or vegetable pigments suspended in a mixture of water and a glue made from animal bones or skins.

Asian paintings are amazingly resilient, and can survive for many centuries, but they are also susceptible to damage from careless handling, changes in humidity, overexposure to light, or insects. In dry air, the paper and silk become brittle and crack, and the paint crumbles or flakes away. If the air is overly moist, mold can attack the painting. Over-exposure to light darkens both silk and paper, and can break down the animal protein in silk fibers.

For these reasons, East Asian paintings are not designed to be displayed permanently. In both China and Japan, paintings are brought out for enjoyment seasonally or on special occasions. At other times, paintings are kept safe, ideally in dark storerooms with thick, fireproof mud walls that maintain a relatively stable environment throughout the year. Hanging scrolls and handscrolls are rolled up and stored in silk sleeves or wooden boxes, while screens are folded and wrapped in fabric.

In order to ensure that the Museum’s collection of East Asian paintings will survive for future generations, UMMA follows a schedule that allows paintings to rest in storage for 10 months for each month they are on view. Thus, if a painting is displayed for three months in a thematic exhibition, it next becomes eligible for display after two and a half years have passed.

Prints, drawings, and watercolor paintings on paper, whether Western or Asian in origin, share several requirements for their care and conservation. Among the major threats to works on paper are careless handling, exposure to unstable materials, overexposure to light, and moisture.

Unmatted works of art on paper must be handled with special care. Handle only with clean cotton, latex or nitrile gloves, as even the slightest amount of natural oil from one’s skin can leave a mark on the paper surface. When moving an artwork, even very short distances, place it on a stiff acid-free board or in the fold of a large sheet of acid-free paper and carry it flat, to avoid accidental creasing or wrinkling.

Make certain that all materials touching the surface of the paper, on the back as well as the front, are acid-free. If your print, drawing, or photograph was framed prior to the 1980s, it may be glued or taped to ordinary cardboard: both the cardboard and the glue or tape are extremely harmful to paper. Never, ever, use newsprint to wrap a work of art on paper or silk: it is so acidic that it will disintegrate paper and silk fibers in a short time period. Seek professional assistance to have cardboard and tapes removed and replaced with archival materials. If you have any question about the materials used to frame your artworks, we recommend that you consult a professional framer in your area.

As an organic material, paper is highly sensitive to light, which will, in time, cause it to become dark and brittle. This discoloration is irreversible, but some degree of flexibility can be restored to the paper through careful conservation treatment. To prevent light damage to works on paper displayed in the home, hang artworks where they are not exposed to bright natural or artificial light, ideally on a north-facing wall or in a hallway. If possible, rotate artworks so that no single work is on display constantly. A convenient way to do this is to change the display with the seasons.

Another enemy of paper is moisture: water and mold can cause greenish-brown stains or warping, or cause ink or pigments to smear. In the home, works of art on paper should be stored in watertight containers and kept well away from damp floors or walls. These containers are also effective against mice and insects, which find both the paper and paste used in Asian paintings quite delicious. Conservation treatment can reverse or diminish the effects of water damage.

Contact Us

Robert B. Jacobs Asian Art Conservation Laboratory

Attn: Katherine Prichard, Assistant Registrar
University of Michigan Museum of Art
525 South State Street
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109-1354

Telephone: 734.647.0527
Fax: 734.763.4881
Email: umma-conservation-lab@umich.edu