Conservation in Action: Japanese Buddhist Sculptures, September 2023

Conservation and Collections Management

The conservation studio set up in the Walter Ames Compton, MD Gallery (Gallery 280) closed to the pubic in December 2022, dismantled to make way for a new gallery opening in 2024 that will be dedicated to Japanese decorative arts. Five of the seven sculptures treated for this project have now returned to the adjacent Temple Room (Gallery 279), which is newly renovated with improved lighting, ventilation, and environmental controls. The upgraded gallery, also opening in 2024, will allow visitors a closer look at the sculptures than was possible in the previous installation. Interactive media will also be included to share some of the discoveries and conservation work undertaken on the sculptures.

Conservation continues on the last two figures, Zôchôten, the Guardian of the South and Tamonten, the Guardian of the North. The process is proving to be particularly time-consuming because the objects were treated in the past with a pesticide harmful to people. While conservators strengthen areas of weakened wood, fill holes left by old insect activity, and consolidate remaining paint layers, pesticide particles reappear on the surface of the sculptures, pulled from within the objects by the use of treatment solvents. The pesticide must be carefully removed and appropriately disposed. Work will be completed in early 2024 before the sculptures can be reinstalled in the Temple Room.

Wood identification for Zôchôten and Tamonten is also ongoing, but results have been confirmed for the others thanks to a collaboration with Mechtild Mertz in Paris and Suyako Tazuru of Kyoto University. Amida, the Dainichi with lost gilding, Bishamonten, and Fudō Myōō are all made from hinoki (Chamaecyparis obtusa), as is common for sculptures from this period. However, the sample from the more elaborate gilded Dainichi was identified as katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), which was unexpected. More research will be needed to determine if this finding is important for understanding the history of the object.

As conservation concludes, we take this opportunity to thank the donors: Vance Wall Foundation; Massachusetts Cultural Council; Lisbeth Tarlow and Stephen Kay; Bettina Burr; Dainippon Sumitomo Pharma Co. Ltd.; and Bank of America. Without this support, conservators would not have been able to treat these remarkable objects and share the work with visitors in such a unique way. Thank you also to the MFA Associates, Senior Associates, and Weekend Guides who generously dedicated their time to inform the public and answer questions. We are especially grateful to all the visitors who stopped by and expressed interest. The project has been incredibly rewarding for the conservators and curatorial colleagues, contributing to the preservation of the objects and furthering study of Japanese Buddhist art.