Teacher Feature: Kindergarten Explores Art Conservation

It’s Teacher Feature Thursday!

This week we are featuring Silvana Oderisi and Cathryn Prudencio of our Kindergarten classroom.  To begin their school year Silvana and Cathryn wanted to provide the children with a foundation of what museums are, who works in them, and how they run.  To do this they met with many people who hold very different roles, but who are all responsible for ensuring the Smithsonian museums run smoothly, and that the objects in the collections are cared for. I joined their class for a lesson on Art Conservation. Below you will find a reflection from Silvana and Cathryn, and images from the lesson.


A reflection from Silvana and Cathryn:

In the beginning of the school year, our kindergarten class explored museums as a topic. Our purpose of this unit was to really delve into what happens behind the scenes of the museums that we visit on a daily basis, so that we can understand all of the work that goes into the different exhibits, installations, and artwork on display.  After spending some time exploring what collections, exhibits and installations are, we decided to learn about the people who take care of the objects that go into these museum spaces, one being art conservators. We visited the Lunder Conservation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to talk about what the conservators do in the Paintings Lab (restoring the structure of a painting by examining the damage, fixing tears, cracks, and the like) and the Paintings Studio (cleaning and in-painting to fill in the missing parts of the painting to match the surrounding areas), as well as the tools they use to accomplish those tasks (magnifying visors, cotton swab, brushes, heated micro-spatula, etc.). This lesson did require a great amount of research on their website, which described what they do in each portion of the Lunder Conservation Center.

The Lunder Conservation Center website and the facility itself, both proved very useful in creating a rich understanding of art conservation for the children.  The website includes videos with interviews of actual conservators and examples of paintings that had undergone the conservation process, and these helped demonstrate for the children the changes that conservators make in a painting, and why.  After viewing and discussing the videos, our class was able to walk around the Center, which has glass walls so you are able to see conservators hard at work- researching, painting, and restoring, which was very exciting.  This lesson was a great way of making concrete connections between science and the arts. Another successful part of the lesson, was allowing the children a hands-on experience in restoring their own painting.  The children were very excited and invested in going back to our playground to become conservators and “fix” a painting we had bought at a thrift store.

An area of the lesson that we will rethink if we do it again, is the amount of time the kids were sitting watching the videos and listening to an explanation of the work conservators do.  We sat for a long time, and some of the children were getting fidgety, however, we were very lucky to have an actual conservator walk up to us and show some of his tools, which refocused our attention. If we were to do this lesson again, we would make the lesson more effective by starting with the videos and pictures as an introduction, then go for a walk through the Center, and conclude with a debrief of what we saw, discussing the importance and significance of the work they do. Another area of the lesson we might rethink is the amount of materials that we wanted to use. We had a computer, a bag with the materials and “tools” for conserving our own painting, a book with some information of a restored painting at the National Gallery of Art, and an anchor chart. Because we had so many materials,  we ended up accidentally leaving the anchor chart in the classroom.  We believe the anchor chart is a valuable visual, and perhaps we would not have left it behind if we had organized the materials better or been more mindful about which we really needed.  One last recommendation we have for this lesson, is to ensure there is some sort of context for a lesson like this- we really believe one of the reasons the children were so excited to learn about the job of a conservator was because they had a firm grasp on the concept of objects in a museum. Art conservation would definitely not be something to teach without context because then it might fall flat.

This lesson was really fun for us as educators as well, because it helped us to better understand all of the work that goes into putting the different pieces of artwork on display in the museums- from the paintings and even to the frames! All in all, we were very surprised by how enthusiastic the children were about the topic. What might seem like a dull topic (even to some adults) was completely absorbed and taken in by the children and they really enjoyed it! After this lesson we continued to learn more about the people who work behind the scenes in museums like archaeologists that restore artifacts at Natural History, scientists who research animals at Natural History, security officers, horticulturists, and more!

Here are a few images from their lesson on Art Conservation:9To learn about art conservation the class visited the Luce Conservation Center, a visible art storage and study center located within the Smithsonian American Art Museum. With the view of conservation labs, it was the perfect place to visit to learn about art conservation.

7To begin the conversation, Silvana pulled up two photos of Charles Bird King’s Miss Satterlee– a before and after of the painting’s restoration work.  Silvana asked the class to look at the first photo and explained that the photo shows how the painting looked when the museum received it.  She asked if they could tell what the painting showed, and the children said they had a hard time seeing what it is, and that it looked like it was from a long time ago.  Then they looked at the second photo and noticed that it looked much clearer.  Silvana explained that the second photo was of the painting after an art conservator restored it – to make the painting look like it did when it was first painted.

SEECstories.com (11).pngSilvana explained that painting restoration is done in two different places – the Paintings Lab, and the Paintings Studio.  While looking at photos and viewing examples of conservator’s work from the Lunder Conservation Center website, the children learned that the Paintings Lab is where  structural damage, tears, flaking paint, and ripples in the canvas are repaired, while the Paintings Studio cleans and restores areas of lost paint.

8 Lastly, Silvana used her computer to show photos of the tools that conservators use, and brought some along, including a q-tip and a magnifying glass.  She showed the class how conservators use these tools to look for tears, wrinkles, dirt, etc., and fix them before they go on display in the museum.

6Then the kindergartners were in for an exciting surprise.  Martin Kotler, a frame conservator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum walked by, heard the conversation and stopped to talk about his job.

SEECstories.com (7).jpg He brought out some of his tools to share with the class.  He explained that he makes a special batch of glue every day that gives flexibility, and he uses a syringe to apply it.

5After learning about the elements of art conservation, the class walked through the Center and looked at the conservation labs to see tools they had just learned about.

12The children also enjoyed seeing the interactive exhibit pieces that display how artwork and objects are conserved and restored.

3They even went upstairs to see another section of the lab and to get a better idea of all the work that goes into art conservation.

4After their museum visit, it was their turn to conserve some artwork!  The class went back to the playground, and split into two groups: the Paintings Lab and the Paintings Studio.

2The Paintings Lab group used magnifying glasses to look for structural damage like tears, ripples and flaking paint.  They also noticed some dirt and used a q-tip to scrub it off.

SEECstories.com (2).jpgOnce the Paintings Lab were done, the Paintings Studio group took over.  They pretended to touch up paint that had lost its color.

11They even spotted some white patches and pretended to do some inpainting, which is the process of restoring areas of lost paint.

Silvana and Cathryn continued to explore the roles and responsibilities of museum employees for a few more weeks. Stay tuned for the Museum Round Up for more ideas from their unit!