Passionate about education, Sheldon and Caroline Keck constantly sought new technologies to advance knowledge of conservation materials and improve standards of collection care. Sheldon established the first conservation laboratory at Brooklyn Museum (BkM) in 1934 where he worked together with Caroline for over 30 years. During their tenure at the museum, the couple produced two films: "A Future for the Past" in 1954 and "The Hidden Life of a Painting" in 1962. The productions were innovative in their use of motion pictures as a didactic tool for museum audiences and a source of great professional pride for the Kecks.
The films are preserved in the BkM archive but had not been viewed for decades due to their outdated formats; they were digitized in 2018 and made publicly available on the BkM YouTube channel in 2021. The digitization project was motivated by research conducted as part of the major ongoing treatment of Deborah Hall painted by William Williams in 1766 and last treated by Sheldon in 1943. Deborah Hall appears in "The Hidden Life of a Painting" as an example of a work that was nearly destroyed by neglect and poor environmental conditions before entering the collection.
"A Future for the Past" features the conservation of an 18th-century European canvas including pre-treatment examination using ultraviolet radiation and magnification under a stereomicroscope. In the film, Sheldon reverses an old glue-paste lining and performs a new wax-resin lining with a hand iron followed by cleaning, spray varnishing, and compensating for loss. The lining is carried out according to the “Dutch Method”. Emphasis is placed on the importance of testing during treatment as well as the practitioner’s knowledge of pigments and artist materials. The film was produced in conjunction with the Take Care exhibition held at BkM in 1954 to showcase the efforts required to preserve the collection.
"Hidden Life of a Painting" is broader in scope and includes footage from the Exposition of Painting Conservation held at BkM in October 1962. The event attracted a diverse group of international professionals and included demonstrations of equipment and materials for use in conservation such as x-radiography units, polarizing filters for photography, and a vacuum hot table. Other segments in the film include the examination of an 18th-century Italian painting on canvas using raking and transmitted light; a lining performed on the vacuum hot table; fitting a painting in its frame using conservation methods; evaluating a suspected El Greco forgery using x-radiography, solvent testing, and a stereomicroscope; and an overview of the museum protocols for borrowing Jan Jansz Mostaert’s Adoration of the Magi from the Rijksmuseum.
Both films offer a unique glimpse into mid-century American conservation practices. Of particular interest are the descriptions of each material selected for treatment and the rationale behind each process, as these details are often absent in the historic records.
Many thanks to Molly Seegers, museum archivist, for pushing to have these films available online and to Jessica Ford, former BkM conservator, for assisting in the research.
Associate Paintings Conservator
(Read the article and watch the films in the August-September 2021 "News in Conservation" Issue 85, p. 8-9)