Peggy Olley, a conservator with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, usually plies her trade behind the scenes in the conservation lab of the Perelman Building.
But for the last few months, she’s been working in plain sight in the Chinese galleries, perched in front of an 18th-century lacquered cupboard, seven feet high and resplendent from top to bottom with a multihued deep-red design of sinuous dragons, chrysanthemums, and birds.
The wardrobe, though beautiful, is also notable for the losses of paint it has suffered over the centuries, losses now more visible to the visitor than at any other time in memory.
The Chinese galleries, showcase for the museum’s stellar 7,000-object collection, have been closed for 10 months, undergoing a $2 million renovation, including a completely new LED lighting system. But thanks to museum conservators, the visible wear to the cupboard — or dasijiangui, as it is known to Chinese art scholars — will be largely hidden when the galleries reopen Sunday.
Olley uses tweezers to attach small pieces of color-coordinated tissue to the cupboard, masking damage in a way that can be completely removed if necessary.
“As part of the renovation, they brought more light in here, which is great,” said Olley. “You can appreciate the object more and see the dragon designs. There’s more light in here than it’s had in the past, so you can also see more of the damage. We’re working on these losses [of paint layers] and probably over the next couple of years, we’ll do a more technical study.”
Olley is one of a large team of conservators who have been working on every part of the Chinese collection — costumes and robes, prints and drawings, photographs, paintings, ceramics, limestone panels.
A Tang dynasty camel, formerly encrusted with grime and sporting what appeared to be a clubfoot, now glows, post-conservation, sans clubfoot. A side of a stone coffin, previously hung high on a wall, mimicking a lintel, has had globs of plaster and even rebar removed and is now installed at a more appropriate height for a coffin (most definitely not a lintel).
Other limestone sarcophagus panels, not on display since the 1940s, have been spiffed up for exhibition in the galleries’ newly conceived funerary section.
All are bathed in the new LED light. Oak floors have been installed — the first time ever that visitors will not tread on painted concrete. Some windows have been opened up overlooking the terrace, and others have been closed off. For the first time, displays of light-sensitive imperial robes will be on view, as well as works on paper.
The whole swath of the museum’s holdings, from ancient tomb panels dating back four millennia to the contemporary work of renowned artists such as Ai Weiwei, will demonstrate the sweep of Chinese culture down to the present. Artworks will also rotate so more of the collection becomes familiar and knowable.
The renovation of these galleries, strategically located between the Japanese Tea House and the Indian Pillared Temple on the museum’s second floor overlooking the East Terrace, is the most recent in a series of refurbishments running parallel to the museum’s major interior renovation, the massive Frank Gehry-designed “Core Project.”
As the core project construction progresses toward a 2020 completion – it involves, among many other things, demolition of the central auditorium – the museum has undertaken a set of satellite renovations, transforming and sharpening many areas untouched by the larger, splashier construction.
The separate renovations and reinstallations began with the Rodin Museum in 2012 and continued with the renovation of the galleries of South Asian Art, completed in 2016.
Now it is the turn of the Chinese galleries to shine. They will be followed by a refurbishment of the museum’s 19th-century European galleries, which include the museum’s fine impressionist and post-impressionist collection.
“Galleries need to be renewed and improved on a periodic basis,” said museum director and chief executive Timothy Rub. “I felt we simply could not wait to address some of the oldest and some of the galleries that have not been upgraded for many decades.”
The gallery refurbishments are ensemble projects involving curators, conservators, designers, and the museum’s staff of carpenters, painters, electricians, and builders. As a result, the Chinese galleries have been transformed in an almost personal way.
The whole project — the first refurbishment of these rooms in more than half a century — has been under the direction of Hiromi Kinoshita, associate curator of Chinese art, who joined the museum in 2012 and who, in a sense, has been working toward this moment ever since.
She has orchestrated the redesign, signed off on new lighting and display cases, researched puzzling artworks, corrected misidentifications, brought things out of storage, and decided to return some to the vaults.
She has also authored Art of China: Highlights from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the first deeply researched and well-illustrated catalog documenting the collection. The museum and Yale University Press have jointly published the volume.
Apart from the physical changes to the galleries, Kinoshita has rethought the entire presentation of the artworks.
“Rethinking how to present collections like this is truly important and central to our work," Rub said. "The story we’re going to tell now with works of art in our Chinese collection, or the stories, to be more precise, are very different from what we’ve told before.”
Rather than arrange objects in a chronological way or group them according to type, Kinoshita has sought to emphasize certain broad themes in the hope that the works will become more understandable to visitors. Death, China and the West, the order of the imperial court, the inward focus of Chinese artists — these now provide the collection with a broad thematic structure.
“My thinking about it has always been to have big themes important to Chinese culture that work at various levels,” she said. “Objects, depending on how you present them, the meaning changes.”
A case in point, she said, is the museum’s crystal ball, a visitor favorite, and a fixture of the unusual Duke Zhao Reception Hall for years. But it will no longer be displayed there. Why?
“Think about it,” Kinoshita said. “A crystal ball is not very Chinese at all. So what is it doing in the Chinese gallery?”
The ball was most likely made for sale to Japan or other foreign countries. Kinoshita decided it made more sense in what she calls the “looking outward” gallery, which speaks to international connections.
Placing it there, in a gallery next to the Duke Zhao Reception Hall, “allows people to think, ‘Wait a minute — this is not necessarily a Chinese thing,’ ” she said.
Chinese artists and artisans did not work with crystal all that much. Nor was the imperial culture particularly focused on seeing into the future.
“This is just one little thing I’m trying to do to dispel or clarify ideas about what it is we’re looking at,” she said. “Yes, it’s exciting and fun, but this is not your typical Chinese object.”
Sunday, Feb. 3, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy.
Museum hours: 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun, 10 a.m.-8:45 p.m. Wed. and Fri.
Lunar New Year Family Festival: 10 a.m-3 p.m. Sun., Feb. 3 (a pay-what-you-wish “first Sunday”), Great Stair Hall Balcony.