Transparency in the Museum: The Conservation of Kwan Yin

"Kwan Yin." Chinese. Ming Dynasty.

“Kwan Yin.” Chinese. Ming Dynasty. Triumphant after cleaning and conservation.

The UMFA’s Kwan Yin is made of wood, gesso, and paint. Right now she lives primarily in our basement, and was recently unearthed for a beauty treatment by Robyn Haynie, our conservator, and Catherine Orange Fischer, who you may recall from her work on our statue of Saint Catherine.

Kwan Yin. Chinese. Ming Dynasty.

Kwan Yin. Chinese. Ming Dynasty.

When Kwan Yin is not slumbering in our basement, she is earning her fame as the Goddess of Mercy. The name Guanyin is short for Guanshiyin, which means “Observing the Sounds (or Cries) of the World.” Because of her reputation as compassionate, she is thought to help usher souls into the afterlife, and is a beloved symbol of vegetarianism.

But all of this benevolence is hard work, and even a beleaguered bodhisattva needs a little pampering now and then.

Enter: the UMFA and its conservation wisdom.

"Kwan Yin." Chinese. Ming Dynasty.

“Kwan Yin.” Chinese. Ming Dynasty.

Kwan Yin needed to be cleaned, and this was done gently and only with water. When inquiring about the order of operations, Ms. Orange Fischer informed me that “the cleaning must be done at the same time as the fixing” in order to avoid any damage to the object.

“Fixing” in this case meant some subtle touch-ups, as well as tacking any flaking pigment back down with isinglass (a sort of glue made from the bladder of a Russian sturgeon!) Isinglass is ideal because it will not result in sheen change nor color change.

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Kwan Yin is made of wood. Actually, she is made of several pieces of wood–and unless Kwan Yin is x-rayed, we don’t know exactly how many pieces she is comprised of. Haynie estimated it may be at least five pieces.

Kwan Yin's base, revealing the multiple pieces of wood

Kwan Yin’s base, revealing the multiple pieces of wood

Certain points where the wood connects have revealed themselves over time: it is here that seems to effect most the intended appearance of Kwan Yin. This is visible at Kwan Yin’s back, seen here before conservation efforts:

Kwan Yin, and her pre-treatment back

Kwan Yin, and her pre-treatment back

This was an important area for our team to address, and the results speak for themselves:

Kwan Yin's back, restored.

Kwan Yin’s back, restored.

The role of any museum as a caretaker of the objects entrusted to it is crucial. The UMFA is dedicated to this task, treating each object with tenderness regardless of its size, perceived worldly value, or history.  I can’t help but recall Kwan Yin’s compassion when thinking of this.

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3 comments

  1. Paul

    Dear sir madam it was lovely to see all the work and through the stages stage by stage of your guan yin wood carving.I also have a wood carving and would be more than happy to send you a photo .Its height is approx 31″circumferance12″ but of coursei can send many photos at a later stage if if you require.I live in leicester city which is appoximately 1oo miles from london.I purcased this from a lady around 10yrs ago. I was decorating her property it was outside in a secluded area which i thought shouldnt be out side. there are a few cracks not serious but i believe it to be old also maybe you could help me discover its origin. Antiques is a hobbie of mine and i have seen similar wood carvings in antique books.I thought it was japanese oak.MY LAND LINE NUMBER IS 01162229817 THANKYOU FOR YOUR TIME AND KIND REGARDS PAUL.

  2. paul

    Sorry to bother you i just wondered if you received the photos.And what your thoughts were do you feel there maybe someone or organisation interested in purchasing this carving.The carving weighs 14 kilos the height is 30″ and 12″ in circumferance. Thanks for your time paul

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