U-M lab preserves Chinese art treasures

August 5, 1997

ANN ARBOR—It’s sometimes like working a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, but Kewei Wang works alone eight hours a day, without coffee breaks or conversation, to restore and conserve pieces of Asian art.

“This austere work ethic is a basic prerequisite for any excellent Asian conservator,” says Marshall Wu of Wang’s work as Asian art conservator in the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s Asian Conservation Lab. Wu, senior curator of Asian art at U-M, says Wang was trained to be a conservator at a young age in the traditional manner in China and “is like a skilled surgeon who saves the lives of numerous old Asian paintings and revitalizes their appearance. Even if the paintings are in tatters, she is able to put the pieces back together as if working a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. There is no help from fancy technology. Every job is performed by her dexterous hands. In a way, she’s like a powerful computer programmed by her training to carry out a precise and correct sequence of processes to fulfill the goal.”

Wang’s touch is so precise that she can pick up a 4-by-8-foot piece of wet rice paper and reposition it on a 100-year-old painting. “The skills necessary for this work boil down to touch and feeling,” Wu says. “It is beyond language. There is no textbook, no school in the world that teaches these skills. You have to find the right studio and master to study with.”

It may be hidden in the basement of U-M’s Museum of Art, but the reputation of the Lab is not a secret to collectors and other museums. It is well known across the country with hundreds of pieces having moved through the Lab in the past 10 years. Wang is currently working on an early 18th-century Japanese scroll from Michigan State University that arrived at the Lab and disintegrated into pieces when unrolled.

“We are extremely fortunate to have an in-house conservation lab,” says Wu, “not only to take care of our own pieces but also to serve museums and private collectors west of Philadelphia. It is a facility that even prestigious museums in Cleveland, Chicago, Kansas City, and San Francisco utilize.”

In the Lab, Wang practices ancient skills in this essential behind-the-scenes ingredient in the care and management of the Museum’s vast Asian holdings. It is here that Wang takes on restoration work for paying clients as well as for museums around the country in a facility comparable to workshops housed only at the Free Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Even private collectors of Asian art seek out the U-M’s laboratory and Wang’s talents.

Wang joined the U-M staff last year after decades of study and conservation work at the Palace Museum in Beijing and the Mannheim Kunsthalle in Germany. “Paste alone takes years to learn,” Wu says. The paste Wu refers to is prepared from “scratch” by processing flour to separate the starch from the gluten. It is then cooked to get the perfect consistency. One of the uses for such paste is in stabilizing the silk base on which a painting is done because the silk often has to be removed from its original paper backing.

Choosing equipment designed for a specific task, Wang often finds herself using brushes made of exotic materials such as bear, goat, sable and weasel hair. Chinese children have been known to kill a weasel and sell the tail to a brush manufacturer. The kids would then stop at a candy shop to spend their newly found riches.

While the Asian Conservation Lab is a part of the Museum few visitors ever see, it is known all over the country and the world for the work it does. About a hundred years ago U.S. collectors began accumulating Asian paintings including scrolls and screens. Large numbers are in this country, but it was not until the 1960s that the need to preserve and conserve these treasures was recognized.

“No trained conservators were available in this country,” says Wu. “Without proper treatment, these invaluable works of art, which represent the esthetic and intellectual achievements of ancient artists in Asia, will disintegrate. U-M’s collection alone has many precious works in need of restoration. Our conservation lab remedied this crisis.”