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Monday, May 16 • 9:00am - 9:30am
(Objects + Wooden Artifacts) The study of boxwood prayer beads and miniature altars from the Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The Thomson Collection of European Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) each holds an impressive number of early 16th century, miniature boxwood carvings known as prayer beads and miniature altars. These intricate objects have fascinated collectors and now museum visitors with their diminutive scale, intricacy and somewhat mysterious methods of construction. A technical research project exploring these objects is underway at the AGO and MMA: findings will be shared in an exhibition at the AGO, MMA and the Rijksmuseum. The study of carving techniques and strategies of joining tiny, interlocking pieces will help group the objects into clusters of makers and/or workshops and perhaps even determine a chronology of manufacture. Conservators and curators at the AGO and MMA have profited from different institutional collection strategies and staff expertise for the benefit of the project. The AGO’s investigation relies on micro-computed tomography (high-resolution X-ray tomography), a non-invasive tool which reveals the carvings’ internal structures and features. Imaging software allows 3D virtual models to be created from the high resolution X-radiographic scans which can then be examined and manipulated in a so-called “virtual deconstruction.” With the information provided by the micro CT scans of their objects, the MMA took the additional step of deconstructing their boxwood objects to the extent possible. With greater access to their interiors, specifics of tooling and fabrication could be documented microscopically, intrusive restorations reduced, broken elements re-adhered, and accumulated dirt and insect casings reduced. The AGO has also embarked on an ambitious program to photograph the entire opus of prayer beads and miniature altars extant internationally (about 130 objects) using high resolution, focus stacking software. This will allow the comparison of objects and examination of detail impossible to date with the constraints of traditional photography, which was only able to produce hazy images of these tiny works. To more thoroughly understand original manufacture and subsequent repairs and restorations, minute samples of the AGO works’ adhesives, coatings and polychromy are being analysed at the Canadian Conservation Institute with Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR); scanning electron microscopy-energy dispersive spectrometry (SEM-EDS); pyrolysis gas-chromatography-mass spectrometry (Py-GC-MS); and with a Bruker Senterra dispersive Raman microscope. Similar analytical work is being undertaken at the MMA. The employment of new technologies such as micro CT scanning, and focus stacking software along with the analytical work carried out at CCI and MMA, is providing previously inconceivable access to the prayer beads and miniature altars. The resulting data, including high quality images and previously hidden construction details, will allow conservators to posit credible theories about makers and chronologies of manufacture. The collaboration between institutions is yielding greater results than would otherwise be possible: there is access to a greater number of works for research purposes as well as the benefit of a collegial environment in which to share findings and deliberate their meaning.

avatar for Lisa Ellis

Lisa Ellis

Conservator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, Art Gallery of Ontario
Lisa Ellis has been the Conservator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Art Gallery of Ontario since 2007: she is the AGO's technical lead on an upcoming exhibition about boxwood carvings from the renowned Thomson Collection at the AGO. She has published conservation articles... Read More →


Alexandra Suda

Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts and Chair, Print & Drawing Council, Art Gallery of Ontario
Alexandra Suda is Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts and Chair, Print & Drawing Council at the Art Gallery of Ontario. She is currently completing her PhD focused on medieval manuscripts at the Institute of Fine Arts NYU and has a Masters Degree from Williams and an AB from... Read More →

Andrew Nelson

Sustainable Archaeology 
at the University of Western Ontario
Dr. Andrew Nelson gained his PhD from UCLA in 1995 in Anthropology. His research interests are centered in two of the major subfields of anthropology, biological anthropology and archaeology. In the field of biological anthropology his research focus is human evolution. In the field... Read More →

Barbara Drake Boehm

The Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Barbara Drake Boehm is The Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior Curator for the Met Cloisters at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is co-curator, with Alexandra Suda of the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Frits Scholten of the Rijksmuseum of the forthcoming exhibition on miniature boxwood carvings... Read More →

Elizabeth Moffatt

Conservation Scientist (retired), Canadian Conservation Institute
Elizabeth Moffatt earned a B.Sc. (Hons) in Chemistry from Memorial University of Newfoundland and an M.Sc., specializing in organic chemistry, from the University of Ottawa. She worked at the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) from 1978 until her retirement in 2015. As a Senior... Read More →
avatar for Jennifer Poulin

Jennifer Poulin

Senior Conservation Scientist, Canadian Conservation Institute
Jennifer Poulin earned a B.Sc. (Hons) in Chemistry from Acadia University in 1992 and a Master’s degree in Analytical Chemistry, specializing in gas chromatography, from Dalhousie University in 1995. She has worked in the analysis of natural products since 1996 and began work at... Read More →

Pete Dandridge

Conservator and Administrator, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Pete Dandridge, Conservator and Administrator, came to the Museum in 1979 after receiving his MA in Conservation and a certificate of advanced studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program in the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works of Art. Since 1984, he has had primary responsibility... Read More →

Monday May 16, 2016 9:00am - 9:30am EDT
Room 710 B