Museums Conservation USA

Boston museum sets its sights 20ft high

Museum of Fine Arts reinstalls an 18th-century English drawing room

The room’s ornate replica ceiling

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has reached new heights with the reinstallation of an 18th-century English drawing room, which is due to reopen this month after being closed for more than 30 years. When the museum originally installed the neo-Palladian panelled room from Newland House, Gloucestershire, in 1931, the decision was made not to recreate the room’s ornate, 20ft-high ceiling. Now, thanks to a team of more than a dozen conservators, carpenters, mould-makers and plasterers, the room has regained some of its original elements, including its authentic colour, and a replica of its decorative plaster ceiling. This room, along with the newly restored dining room from Hamilton Palace, near Glasgow, is due to open to the public on 8 May as part of a larger project to renovate the museum’s Hartman Galleries.

Gordon Hanlon, the head of furniture and frame conservation at the museum, likens the reassembly of the Newland room, which dates to around 1748 and has 276 wall panels and 51 floorboards, to working with a “giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle”. Three historic photographs taken in Gloucestershire were used to create a replica of the room’s original ceiling.

An analysis of paint samples revealed that the room had only been painted three times in its 265-year history. “Benign neglect really paid off for us,” Hanlon explains, noting that the details of the panels are particularly crisp because there are so few layers of paint.

Hanlon says that the deinstallation and reinstallation of period rooms is on the rise. “It’s a specialised little field, but it’s something we’re beginning to see on a regular basis.” According to Hanlon, one factor that sets Boston’s period interiors apart from those in many US museums is that they were bought specifically for the institution and were therefore not modified by dealers to fit a collector’s home. “I was grateful that we didn’t have to consider whether we should take the room back to its original form,” he says.

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