From the very start, the founders of the Kimbell Art Museum envisioned a conservation program to “preserve for future generations what has been entrusted to its care.” The pre-architectural plan, dated 1966, called for a conservation studio with an “open work area,” with the caveat: “must face north, with entire wall glazed; it is impossible to get enough light in this room!” When the Kimbell opened in 1972, the paintings conservation studio was the only space in the Museum, other than the lower level of the auditorium, that Louis Kahn designed with a soaring, double-height vault. The height of the vault allows for an expansive glass wall, which faces an interior courtyard and lets ample natural light into the conservation studio. An ideal environment in which to examine, clean, and restore works of art, it has served as a model for many museum conservation laboratories. Astutely planned to be adjacent to photography, storage, and the files in the registrar’s office, the conservation studio is also within easy access of the director’s and curators’ offices. This was due to the foresight of the Kimbell’s first director, Richard F. (Ric) Brown, who wanted conservation to play a key role within the total Museum program.
Today the conservation department functions as a dynamic gathering point within the Museum, providing the conservators, working together with other members of the staff, with an efficient, beautifully designed, and centrally located space in which to address the needs of the collection. Here paintings can be discussed during the course of restoration, loans examined, potential acquisitions considered, environmental controls assessed, and photographs of paintings corrected and compared to original works of art with the benefit of optimal natural light. At the same time, the studio can transform itself into a quiet space where the conservators can work undisturbed, focusing their attention on tasks requiring concentration and precision, such as delicate conservation treatments, technical examinations, and analysis.
The studio is equipped with state-of-the-art scientific tools, including stereo- and polarizing-light microscopes, an InGaAs infrared reflectography camera, and an X-radiography system, enabling the two full-time conservators to perform in-depth examinations to document the condition of paintings. Technical examination also provides critical evidence of artists’ materials and techniques, shedding light on questions of attribution, dating, and artists’ intentions. This investigation not only advances a greater understanding of the physical attributes of paintings, but also impacts art historical research on works in the Kimbell collection.
Because Kahn designed one of the first museum conservation studios to be visible to the public, visitors to the Kimbell’s east gallery can sometimes glimpse the professionals at work through the glass walls that surround the adjacent courtyard. Over the past several years, the conservators have steadily expanded public access and awareness of their work through lectures, installations, publications, and most recently, iPad apps about conservation topics.