Last week I sat down with Paul Haner, paintings conservator for the Saint Louis Art Museum, and asked him a few questions about being a conservator and Restoring an American Treasure.
Catherine Wood: What is your favorite thing about being a conservator?
Paul Haner: The hands-on treatment. In a museum we do lots of other things, but the hands-on treatment is the most fun.
CW: What other kinds of things do you work on?
PH: We do research, comparing artworks to one another for condition. Some of what we work on in conservation are paintings that are three, four, five hundred years old. With those, mostly what we’re doing is dealing with previous restoration – maybe the materials they used are not holding up any more, or they’ve changed color, or the painting has developed some kind of problem related to an earlier treatment. We have to take things apart and redo them, put them back together.
CW: Have you encountered any previous restoration on the Panorama?
PH: There’s been some. Most of the damage that you see now are these white lines from the creases, where the paint has flaked off. But there’s a couple of areas where it’s been damaged – it got torn, or it got water on it and dissolved the paint – these areas are a bit bigger, so somebody else tried to repaint them. They were a bit heavy-handed, so we have to try to remove that bit and then cover up their paint with our paint, to make it look better.
CW: How is an exhibition like this, where you’re conserving live in a gallery, different from how you normally work?
PH: Well, the obvious thing is that there’s people all around! [Laughs] Another thing is that when you’re in your lab or studio, you have all of the equipment and tools you need around you. Up here it’s a bit different. We have to bring everything to the site.
But yeah, the interaction with the people is the main difference, because usually I’m all alone in a room with the painting. The Panorama is a very unique project. It’s a lot of fun.
CW: What kinds of obstacles have you encountered during the conservation, and how do you overcome them?
PH: Well, there are wrinkles in it, and creases. The paint is powdery, so we spray it with a water solution that has gelatin in it. The gelatin consolidates the paint, toughens things up. The moisture helps the canvas – it’s a cotton fabric – to relax and flatten out. We put a little tension on it and it dries overnight. Otherwise it was really hard to get rid of the creases just working on them individually. After it dries, we’ll raise it up and do all the in-painting.
It’s also just the square footage, the size of it. It’s very big and delicate, and it has to be handled very carefully. It’s heavy – the whole apparatus weighs about four thousand pounds – so when we move it or roll the Panorama up on one of these rollers, we have to be really careful. It takes about three minutes to raise or lower the mechanism. This whole apparatus is pretty fantastic. It’s a unique treatment for a unique object – there were six Panoramas with the Mississippi River theme, but this is the only one that still exists.
CW: Do you learn new information about the Panorama as you conserve it?
PH: In every scene we learn more about the artist’s technique – how he put it together, his working methods, that sort of thing. For example, sometimes you can see through the paint a little bit and see a grid. The artist laid out that grid on the canvas so he could get the perspective right.
Last year, we discovered something new about the cave scene [scene five]. We found mica sprinkled along the stalactites to make them sparkle. And there were actually little pieces of colored metal about two inches long sewn on in certain areas. That’s the only scene that’s had any kind of collage-type application of another material.
CW: What are you hoping to accomplish during this exhibition?
PH: If we get to and finish scene eighteen, I’ll be happy. We’re on scene twelve now, so we’re not quite halfway through – about 168 feet in. We’ve got twelve weeks this summer, and our average time for one scene is about ten days to two weeks. It varies – this one [scene twelve] doesn’t look like it has the same degree of loss, so maybe we can get it done in a week.
Others will take longer. Scene seventeen is the worst one – it’ll probably take about a month.
CW: That scene is pretty heavily damaged. Will you fill in all of those lost areas?
PH: We will. When you’re doing the retouching, you can usually tell what it’s supposed to be, so you don’t have to make anything up. There’s actually an engraving of this exact scene that shows what it’s supposed to look like, so we’ll be able to recreate everything.
CW: What about the rest of the Panorama?
PH: There are twenty-four scenes that will actually be worked on. The Panorama has twenty-five scenes, but the last one is unfinished, so I doubt it will ever be displayed. We probably won’t do much, but we might consolidate it. Then at some point in 2014 or 2015, this whole thing will be installed in the American gallery on the third floor. At that time the remaining scenes will be treated.
CW: Why is conserving the Panorama such a long process?
PH: It’s just a matter of having the people. One person can work on it, but it’s gonna take four weeks to do what four people can do in one week. We have three pre-program students helping, and Mark [Bockrath] will be here for two weeks starting Sunday, June 10. There will be between two and four people working on it all the time.
CW: Have you worked on group projects like this before?
PH: Nope, first time.
CW: How do you like it?
PH: I think it’s fun to instruct the pre-program students, to get them started and watch them progress, getting better and better at what they’re doing. There’s also the conversation and camaraderie. I like it.