Conservation in Action: Japanese Buddhist Sculptures, Introduction

Conservation and Collections Management

The Temple Room, one of the most beloved spaces in the MFA, was designed in 1909 to evoke the contemplative atmosphere of a Buddhist temple. Until late 2018, it housed seven large-scale wooden figures of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and guardian figures, all decorated with polychromy and gilding and dating from the Heian to Kamakura periods (ninth to twelfth centuries). Their need for conservation became apparent in 2017 when the sculptures were assessed for possible inclusion in an exhibition. When conservators brought examination lights to the normally darkened gallery, a host of significant problems was revealed, from the expected (dust, fragile surfaces, and discolored restorations) to the more serious (lifting lacquered and gilded surfaces, splitting and cracking of wood, historical insect tunneling, and pesticide residues from the 1960s).

Given their scale and the instability of their surfaces, it makes sense to perform the treatments in the larger adjacent Walter Ames Compton, MD Gallery (Gallery 280), which also allows the process to be shared with visitors. As treatments are completed, the sculptures will be placed inside display cases encircling the gallery’s public conservation studio. The project is anticipated to take 18 months, after which the sculptures will be returned to a newly refurbished Temple Room (to be temporarily closed for an upgrade of the climate control system that serves the entire Asian wing of the Museum).

Conservator Linsly Boyer talks with visitors about conservation of Japanese Buddhist sculptures
Conservator Linsly Boyer introduces the project to a group of young visitors.

The Sculptures

The seven sculptures from the Temple Room include deities from different sects of Buddhism and were created to serve as devotional figures in temple environments. The temples of their origin and the identities of the sculptors and painters who created them remain unknown in most cases. The sculptures had been decorated with elaborate polychromy, gilding, and elegant cut gold foil designs (kirikane); originally they would have appeared much brighter, more imposing and visually arresting. Many of the sculptures include additional elements, such as a base, mandorla, or other attributes.

Sculptures displayed in the Temple Room
The sculptures as originally displayed in the Temple Room.

Conservation Strategy

The current project will use a minimal conservation approach to stabilize and lightly clean the sculptures, and will include thorough examination and documentation of the objects. Additions and repairs to the sculptures made throughout their long existence are considered valuable aspects of their history and will be preserved in the current treatment as much as possible. All the sculptures will require some level of consolidation to flaking paint, gilding, and lacquer layers. Any unsafe cracks in the wood will be secured, and old areas of insect damage will be stabilized as needed. The sculptures will be cleaned with a low-speed vacuum and soft brushes, and lightly dabbed with cosmetic sponges. The objective of the cleaning process is to remove dust that has been deposited in the museum environment, but leave in place the layers of soot acquired from exposure to incense in their historical temple settings.

Detail of damage on Japanese Buddhist sculpture
Condition problems on the Temple Room sculptures include splitting wood, lifting lacquer and gilding, failing repairs, and old insect damage.

Several of the sculptures were restored in 1909 by a Japanese sculptor named Niiro Chūnosuke, who was invited to the MFA by Okakura Kakuzō, the Museum’s first curator of Asian art. The condition of those restorations and the materials he used will be investigated in order to learn more about the techniques he utilized. Restorations performed at the MFA in the 1980s will similarly be left intact and stabilized as necessary.

Two of the sculptures were treated with toxic pesticides in the past to prevent insect infestation. The pesticides have since recrystallized on the surfaces of the sculptures, complicating their treatment. Care will be taken during conservation to protect both conservators and the working environment from the pesticide residue.