Cutting-Edge Art Conservation

In what is believed to be the first project of its kind, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art recently turned to 3D technology to overcome an especially difficult art restoration challenge.

The goal was to restore a hand and an optical lens to an 1810 porcelain harlequin produced by Germany’s Meissen art house. The right hand had been restored previously, but “it was a very insensitive restoration,” said Kate Garland, Nelson-Atkins senior art conservator of objects. “We had to put a new hand on to make it work.”

Garland first tried traditional methods involving free-form modeling and casting. But “none of them looked like we wanted them to,” she said. “They were too clunky, or not articulated well enough.”

So Garland and her colleagues turned to 3D technology, in which layers of material are formed under computer control to create an object. Using photogrammetry, a type of photography that measures distance between objects, they produced a 3D mesh that could be sculpted on a computer and readied for a 3D printer.

Stephanie Spence, a graduate intern who worked with Garland on the restoration, said the spectacle on the harlequin’s face presented the biggest challenge. “That spectacle is not even a centimeter wide. We made maybe 50 photos of it to create our model.”

The 3D printing of the objects was done by Steve Goslin, 3D technology analyst at Hallmark Cards.

Garland said she is very pleased with the result. “Instead of it being my idea of what the hand might have looked like, we worked from the original artist’s conception of what the hand looked like.”

Kathleen Leighton, Nelson-Atkins media relations manager, said another advantage of 3D technology is that conservators touch the art object much less than they do when using traditional techniques.

Garland said it is believed that the Meissen harlequin project represents the first time 3D technology has been used to restore a fine porcelain object. “I’m trying to find a way to more safely do restorations that are more accurate to the piece, through this technology,” she said.

The museum now plans to use 3D technology to restore two dragons and a bird’s head to the lid of an 18th-century English posset pot from the Burnap Collection. Dragons for the lid will be modeled from dragons on the pot itself. A 3D rendering of the lid will be used to digitally recreate the bird head.

Garland expects art conservators to make greater use of 3D technology as they become more tech-savvy. “In my field, most people go into conservation because they like working with their hands,” she said. “To try and wrap your mind around doing all of this on a computer can take a little time.”

But despite the advances of computer technology, Garland said, conservators will still need the kinds of specialized abilities they’ve always needed to do their jobs properly. “Even if you’re just pulling on a computer mesh to create a finger, you have to understand how that works in three dimensions. You still need an understanding of the sensibilities of what this really looks like.”

Above: A damaged Meissen Harlequin figurine (c. 1810) (foreground) in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art was recently restored with the help of 3D imaging. During the process, Bruce North (left) shared his digital imaging knowledge with Kate Garland, the Nelson’s objects conservator (center), and graduate intern Stephanie Spence. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Julius Karash

Julius A. Karash is a freelance writer, editor and public relations person. He formerly was a business reporter for the Kansas City Star and executive editor of KC Business magazine. He devours business and economic news, and is keenly interested in the relationship between arts and economic development in the Kansas City area.

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