'Palace Life Unfolds: Conserving a Chinese Lacquer Screen' opens at the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art

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'Palace Life Unfolds: Conserving a Chinese Lacquer Screen' opens at the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art
Chinese Lacquer Screen, 1672, Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution.

WASHINGTON, DC .- On display for the first time at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery after a major conservation project, this Chinese lacquer screen dated to 1672 is a delight, featuring newly revealed intricate details that had been obscured by centuries of wear and use. Titled Spring Morning in the Han Palace, the composition presents an idealized, ahistorical view of the lives of women in an imperial palace of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). This exhibition examines the screen’s meaning and use in China, the techniques of its manufacture, and the efforts of museum staff to research and conserve this work of art. It also explores the popularity of such screens as imported luxuries in Europe.

This screen has not been exhibited since 1976 due to its fragile condition. It was brightly colored when it was first created, but over the years, the painted areas darkened and flaked, old restorations discolored, and cracks developed. The museum’s concern for its condition and the decision to exhibit it initiated a major treatment campaign. This conservation project was the first chance to work on all panels together as a cohesive object, and it also provided an opportunity to conserve the screen and to determine how and from what materials it was originally made.

“The screen is so richly appealing that it is just as rewarding to modern audiences in its current faded state as it would have been to the original audience.” – Jan Stuart, Melvin R. Seiden Curator of Chinese Art.

Long before the Freer Gallery of Art opened its doors to the public in 1923, museum founder Charles Lang Freer regularly brought specialists from Japan to care for the Asian artworks on view in his Detroit mansion. Today, as the foremost center in the United States for the care and scientific study of the arts of Asia, the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research (CSR) continues the work begun in the East Asian Painting Conservation Studio in 1932 and the Technical Laboratory in 1951.

The Freer and Sackler use a valuable combination of conservation and scientific methods to study works of art. Our scientists and conservators strive to improve methods of preservation, educate others in conservation practices, and conduct research into materials, such as the pigments used in Asian paintings.

Our scientists, conservators, and specialists collaborate closely with the museums’ design, exhibition, and curatorial departments. Together, they safeguard the collections, ensure the proper display and storage of objects, and contribute to the ever-growing understanding and appreciation of Asian and American art.

Jan Stuart, Melvin R. Seiden Curator of Chinese Art

Donna Strahan, head of conservation and scientific research

Ellen Chase, objects conservator

Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
“Palace Life Unfolds: Conserving a Chinese Lacquer Screen””
July 15th, 2023 - January 28th, 2024

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