A Quiet Enhancement

March 4, 2016
Conservation technician Charlotte Karney created custom fan-shaped silk-covered mats for Japanese fans from the Feinberg Collection. Presented inside handsome walnut frames, the fans are now on view as part of a recent rotation in the East Asian Painting and Decorative Arts gallery.

This story is part of a series of articles about “museum-speak,” or the lingo of those who work in museums, as well as museum-related knowledge. It is intended to deepen your understanding of the behind-the-scenes workings of a museum, and in particular the operations of the Harvard Art Museums.

The matting and framing of a work of art is a vital, though often underappreciated, responsibility. And staff in our Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies want to keep it that way.

“You notice these things if they are not done properly,” said Charlotte Karney, senior conservation technician in the Straus Center, who has worked with the Harvard Art Museums collections for 18 years. “The point is to make the art all that you are concentrating on,” she said, “not the frame or the mat.” In other words, the less apparent her contribution, the better.

Every work on paper that’s destined for public viewing—whether in the Art Study Center or in special or permanent exhibitions—receives a mat, and often a frame as well. Depending on the complexity of individual works, Karney can mat and frame anywhere from one to ten objects a day, with ramped-up output prior to special exhibitions. For the Corita Kent and the Language of Pop exhibition, for instance, Karney and her (now retired) colleague Barbara Owens had matted and framed more than 140 works.

Though approaches to matting and framing can vary, the basic steps are the same. After measuring a work’s dimensions, Karney calculates the most pleasing proportions for a “window mat” and frame, which serve both to present and to protect the art. While many people would assume a mat’s width is the same on all four sides (a one-inch border framing the artwork, for example), Karney said the bottom tends to be slightly wider than the top—making the task of calculating a mat’s proportions trickier than it might sound. However, it’s worth it; “this approach makes the art more pleasing to the eye,” she said.

To create the precise and clean cuts that are needed for a proper window mat, Karney uses a Speed-Mat, a wall-mounted pneumatic board cutter. It neatly slices through thick mat board in a matter of seconds. The mat is then attached to a backing board using linen tape. The art is positioned within the mat and attached to the backing board with Japanese paper hinges and wheat starch paste.

A frame is selected in consultation with curators. Ultraviolet-filtering Plexiglas usually separates a frame from the mat and the art beneath, but occasionally some objects require different materials. When Karney framed Roy Lichtenstein’s 10 Landscape prints for the Corita Kent exhibition, for instance, she chose to use a more costly product called Optium, a non-reflective plastic, because the prints (such as Landscape 5) were already very shiny.

More recently, Karney created custom fan-shaped silk-covered mats for Japanese fans from the Feinberg Collection. To cut the window mats, she used a small, handheld mat cutter, a task that required a steady hand and a great deal of concentration. These objects, presented inside handsome walnut frames, are now on view as part of a rotation in the East Asian Painting and Decorative Arts gallery. When matting and framing is carried out with this degree of expertise and care, viewers are able to stay focused on the work—and that, of course, is the whole point.

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