Preparing for a New Museum Building: Conservation Assessments Underway

A mosaic that has been under the floor of the Museum Store is uncovered for conservation assessment. It will be moved off-site during the construction of the new building. Roman, Mosaic: lozenges, early 3rd century AD. Stone. Princeton University Art Museum. Gift of the Committee for the Excavation of AntiochAs we prepare for the construction of the new Art Museum building, scheduled to begin in 2021, considerable planning is underway for the safe removal of all works of art currently on display in the Museum. For works that are embedded in the walls or floors, the deinstallation process is especially complex.

Before highly specialized conservation teams remove an embedded object, they work to understand how it was put together—both by the original maker and by those who installed it here in the Museum generations ago. These teams study archival documents and core samples of the material to understand whether the cement that holds original fragments together is from the fifteenth century or the 1950s. In addition, they generate detailed condition reports on the works.

DetailAs one can imagine, much of this activity is concentrated in both the Roman Court and the Medieval Gallery, where most embedded works are located. But Museum visitors might be surprised to learn that one of the embedded mosaics is located underneath the carpeted floor of the Museum Store. Protective layers, including a wooden floor under the carpet, were temporarily removed to allow this examination to take place.

Another piece that many people might not be familiar with is a fourteenth-century French doorway that was covered up a decade ago because it did not fit into the curatorial narrative of the Medieval Gallery. Once the temporary wall was carefully removed, the conservators were able to examine and document this piece in preparation for its removal.

A temporary gallery wall is removed to reveal a French doorway. With input from conservators, plans are being made for the safe transition of the Museum’s embedded artworks to off-site storage. French, Doorway, 14th century. Stone. Princeton University Art Museum. Gift of Baroness Cassel van DoornPrinceton’s embedded mosaics are particularly complicated to deinstall. Between their discovery during archaeological excavations and their installation all over campus are many steps that could have significantly changed the materiality of the mosaics. For example, the Head of Medusa floor mosaic from the ancient Greek city of Antioch (near present-day Antakya, Turkey) was removed in fragments and prepared for safe shipping to the United States. Once it arrived, it was conserved several times and installed in an upright orientation in the Roman Court.

When a straightforward visual inspection is not sufficient to assess how an artwork was installed, it is necessary to make openings near the artwork. A borescope (a camera on a flexible tube) can be inserted to look behind the embedded works. This makes it possible to understand (or reverse engineer) how a work is held in place. These types of examinations are extremely important because they have revealed that some information in the archival documents discussing the installation of the pieces at Princeton was incorrect. Highly detailed accounts of previous installations are crucial for conservators and their colleagues, helping them to understand the method and approach used for installations in the past and to conduct safe removal of objects as needed in the future.

Now that the first phase (examination and documentation) is nearing completion, the Museum has started to plan the following stages: safe removal, storage, and finally conservation. We hope to share some glimpses of this process—and of the discoveries we are sure to make—in future issues of this magazine.

Bart Devolder
Chief Conservator