US museum trains apprentices to preserve Asian artwork

World Today

Although museums across the United States have increased their Asian art collections in recent years, the ability to conserve the pieces have not kept pace.

A shortage of so-called ‘masters’ means many of the pieces are either sent overseas or are treated by conservators who lack the required training.

But steps are being taken to address the issue. CGTN’s Dan Williams reports.

The Cleveland Museum of Art has some exceptional pieces. From Monet to Marilyn. But one of the key attractions is a wing dedicated to Asian art.

But a collection of this size and importance also represents a major conservation challenge, given the fragile nature of the materials used to create them.

“Asian paintings and paperwork requires a very specialized skill set. The way of learning and training somebody for conserving of Chinese paintings is done in master/student apprenticeship relationship. So it is a transferring, a tradition, of technical skill from one hand to the other, from the master to the student. And this takes a long long time,” said Clarissa von Spee, Chair of Asian Art, Cleveland Museum of Art.

Time is not the only issue a number of masters have recently retired. Attracting the masters that are left to move from China to the U.S. can be both difficult and costly. There’s now a shortage of masters to do the work.

Yi-Hsia Hsiao hopes to be part of a new generation of conservators.

Working in the recently established Center for Chinese Paintings Conservation at the museum, Hsiao is currently working under her fourth master. Apprenticeship programs can take more than a decade to pass.

“If you see a kung fu movie, you know the master wouldn’t teach you to do the treatment right away, they expect you to make a number of fundamental processes,” said Hsiao. “You have to observe them, you have to learn by watching them and talking to them.”

Currently, there are only three other conservation programs like this one in the United States.

Despite a lack of Asian art conservationists in the U.S., it’s hoped that programs like this one can help establish a new pathway and ensure the expertise continues to be passed down.

“I will be a master and I will be training next generation. So through my past training, pass on to next generation. So that is very important stepping stone for me. So it is a milestone for our museum. And we have to attract next generation to make a commitment to this field,” said Hsiao.

In time, it’s hoped this center will run workshops and courses to expand the Asian art knowledge pool within the U.S.

And preserve treasures like these for generations to come.