New center at US museum helps preserve ancient Chinese paintings

World Today

New center at US museum helps preserve ancient Chinese paintings

It’s a museum with a Chinese art collection spanning more than 5,000 years – and it’s located in the United States. Now, a multi-million dollar addition will help fill a dire need in preserving part of this rich past. CGTN’s Frances Kuo has more.

It takes a special person to do this kind of work.

Yi-Hsia Hsiao keeps history alive in vivid, pain-staking detail. “I have to treat this painting like it’s the first time I see you,” she said. ” I have to respect it.”

Hsiao specialized in conserving ancient Chinese paintings in her native Taiwan. Now, she has a new place to do it – at the Cleveland Museum of Art in the US state of Ohio. “I just realize I have a lot of responsibility, but I’m happy because I’m doing the right thing.”

Per Knutas is the chief conservator. “The foremost important trait is to have a sharp eye and a curious mind,” he explained.

And persistence. For six years, he’s pushed for a center in the museum specifically dedicated to Chinese painting conservation. He now has it – thanks to a $1.5 million private donation.

“The greater field had identified that Chinese painting conservation in the US was in crisis,” Knutas said.

In crisis – in part – because Chinese masters of the ancient craft are retiring, and few people can fill the spots for such specific skills.

“How to apply something, how to hold a brush, how to cut the paper,” explained Knutas. “We cannot intervene with our own subjective tastes and change the appearance, we have to also acknowledge the history of the paintings.”

That training requires years under a master – not to mention a good foundation of Chinese culture. Knutas said, “they have to have a contact with China, they have to have spent time there in a lab or work under somebody who works in China.”

The hope is to attract Westerners to participate, as the new center will also serve as a training lab. Masters from China will visit the center every six months to train conservators.

The center at the Cleveland Museum of Art is one of the few in the United States – and the world – dedicated to the conservation of Chinese paintings. The plan is to focus first on its own collection, then help other institutions with theirs.

That kind of partnership is crucial, as there are only three other such conservation centers in the United States – and one in the UK.

According to Knutas, “Conservation is costly. Not every museum has a conservation on staff or conservators on staff.”

But the new center will help pass along narratives from the past that risked fading away.

“We do not conserve objects here,” Knutas explained. “We conserve stories that are connecting us as humans.”

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