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Behind the Scenes at Three Faiths: A Conversation with Senior Exhibitions Conservator Myriam de Arteni
Myriam de Arteni has been painstakingly repairing the library’s vast collections for more than three decades. But for de Arteni, conserving works in the “Three Faiths” exhibit--which include some of the library’s oldest and most precious documents--has been one of her most ambitious projects yet.
How does this exhibit compare to other exhibits you’ve worked on? Was it among the most ambitious?
Yes, it was very challenging because it features such rare and fragile manuscripts. It was also the first time that I did not have access to all the materials at all times. Each manuscript had to be carefully packed in a humidity-controlled environment and delivered to our new lab. This exhibition has some of the oldest and most fragile materials in the library’s collection. Transportation was a major concern.
Of the nearly 200 works on display, how many required conservation?
In all, 65 objects needed work. Not all of them required major conservation; some just needed stabilization. Some have never before been displayed by the NYPL.
What are some of the techniques you used to restore these fragile texts?
Surface cleaning and stain reduction, mending tears, filling losses, humidification and flattening, and pigment consolidation are just a few of the treatments performed.
Which works required the most intensive conservation?
I would say a Persian Anthology of Prayer from the 16th or 17th century (#691), which took two weeks to treat. It was challenging because of the mixed techniques used by the original artist. The spine had two major tears, at the top and bottom. Its pages were semi-detached and needed to be repaired very delicately so its intricate illuminations would not be disturbed.
Another work that need major restoration was a rare leaf from a 13th century Talmud. This work was very obviously grimy and had a large loss that needed filling. Since the writing was on vellum, I used the suction table to ensure its iron gall ink would not bleed during cleaning.
Do you have a favorite work in the show?
I do have a favorite: The Persian Anthology of Prayers that required so much work. It’s a small book, but it’s so precious, it’s a jewel. I would not say it is the most rare work in the exhibit, but its illuminations and illustrations are superb.
How long have you been working as a conservator at the Library?
I’ve been at the Library since 1977, first as a consultant and then as head of conservation at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In 1985, I was approached by the head of exhibitions and the head of preservation to join the new exhibitions program. Since then I have worked on about four exhibitions a year.
Where do you work?
All of the major conservation work is performed at the library’s new Barbara Goldsmith Conservation Laboratory in Long Island City, Queens.
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