ART CON­SER­VA­TOR MINA THOMP­SON

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Paul Wei­de­man

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

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