ART CONSERVATOR MINA THOMPSON
Mina Thompson spends her days laboring over all manner of objects from the state’s museums. Whether a contemporary sculpture or an ancient pot, she endeavors to make it look its best, typically for an upcoming exhibition. She is an art conservator. “This is a national profession now,” said Thompson, who has worked for the Museum of New Mexico for 17 years and whose specialty is threedimensional objects. “It used to be more about old-school apprenticeships, and to some degree it still is, but now there are graduate programs — I went to one of them.” She has an MA in objects conservation from Buffalo State College. “We actually sign on to a code of ethics and standards for practice, because the training involves a lot of materials and technology. You get to learn about pigments and their history and about casting bronze and woodworking and pottery and glass and silverworking and oil paints. It’s fascinating.”
Thompson was born and raised in Los Angeles, and she majored in art history at UCLA. “I had always done artwork on my own, painting and drawing, and I like doing stuff with my hands. So once I learned that this was actually a real profession, and I could use my mind and my hands, I thought, Oh my gosh, the angels sang, and I was like, This is the perfect thing for me.”
When an old museum piece has gotten somewhat “funky,” at what point does a conservator do something to it, versus leaving it alone because it’s historic? A pot may be falling apart because it was put together a hundred years ago with an adhesive that only lasted 50 years. Do the curator and conservator want to glue it back together or let it fall apart? Thompson deals with these issues all the time. “Part of our ethics is to conserve as much of the original as possible without covering it up, and anything that we put on an object to fix it, to stabilize it, or to make it look better, we always try to make what we do reversible.
“We learn how something is made, which means we can make really good fakes if we wanted to, but we have to say, Let’s not do that. First and foremost, it’s our duty to stabilize something if it’s falling apart. Think about flaking paint on a bulto. This is an interesting object because it’s something that was used and cared for by the community, and they very often would repaint it, which makes sense. But once it’s in a museum we don’t want to repaint it, because that’s changing it from what it was when we got it. Typically what we do is a solubility test to find out what the paint dissolves in, then we choose an adhesive.” The conservator always works with the curator who is staging an exhibition, and always documents exactly what is done to a piece. Thompson writes a proposal and takes photos of the object before the work has begun. Then she photographs it after completion and records exactly what was done and what materials were used or added.
A contemporary sculpture by Tom Waldron was on her work table. “We brought him in to ask him questions about the patina. Where we can, we really like to talk to the artist, or to someone in the source community in the case of Native American pieces.”
Nearby was a broken crucifix about 18 inches tall, made of wood with carved details and with a metal Christ figure. The inside structure of the small base includes thread spools and two matchboxes. It is destined for the No Idle Hands: The Myths & Meanings of Tramp Art show that will open at the Museum of International Folk Art next March. “This is from Germany or Belgium and was made in the late 1800s,” Thompson said. “I can tell this has been reglued two other times in the past. Originally it would have been hide glue, then there was a PVA emulsion like Elmer’s wood glue, then there was hot melt glue. I had to take a lot of hot melt glue off so it will all fit together better.”
She has worked on Mimbres pottery dating back to about A.D. 1000, and during her training at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, she treated ancient Egyptian objects. “I get to work with things that are normally at arm’s length, and I get to handle them and care for them and make them such that they’e able to be looked at and appreciated by other people. It’s great.”
SO ONCE I LEARNED THAT THIS WAS ACTUALLY A REAL PROFESSION, AND I COULD USE MY MIND AND MY HANDS, I THOUGHT, OH MY GOSH, THE ANGELS SANG, AND I WAS LIKE, THIS IS THE PERFECT THING FOR ME. — MINA THOMPSON