Training at the Harvard Art Museums: Bart J. C. Devolder

September 27, 2013
Bart Devolder working on the panel depicting Gabriel in the Ghent Altarpiece. Photo: KIK-IRPA, Brussels.

The Harvard Art Museums have trained scores of museum leaders who have gone on to make remarkable contributions to the curatorial, conservation, and education fields. We offer a number of opportunities for emerging graduate and postgraduate scholars interested in the production and presentation of original scholarship within the museum context. In this regular series of interviews, we catch up with these museum professionals to see where they are now.

Bart J. C. Devolder, Painting Conservation Advanced-Level Intern in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, 2004–5


What is your current position?

I am the On-Site Coordinator and Painting Conservator for the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA). Of the eight painting restorers on the project, I am the only full-time person.

This project will last five years and is being carried out at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent. Because the panels are not allowed to leave Ghent, a lab was created in the museum. Everything is open to the public, so visitors can follow all of our steps behind bulletproof glass. In this first phase of the project, each restorer has a panel; mine is the angel Gabriel.

The project is complicated. The panels are owned by Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral, with the exception of the Adam and Eve panels, which belong to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels and are on long term loan to the cathedral. The treatment is paid for by the Flemish government and our sponsor, InBev-Baillet Latour. So, it’s a typical Belgian situation: we work for the federal government on a piece that is mostly owned by a church, but two panels are owned by the Belgian state. We are paid with Flemish money and we work in a city museum!

I deal with a lot of political stuff in the meetings, trying to keep everybody happy. In addition I also do a lot of the interviews, I am the liaison between all of the partners, and I am on most of the taskforces. Of course this is all on top of my real work—restoring the painting.


What have you gone on to do following the completion of your fellowship at the Harvard Art Museums?

I went on to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, for an Andrew W. Mellon fellowship. There I conducted an in-depth study on painted brocades in 15th-century Netherlandish paintings. I also worked on restoring several great paintings, including two by Cranach the Elder: A Prince of Saxony and A Princess of Saxony. After my time at the National Gallery, I worked at the Kimbell Art Museum and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art for five years, before I took my current position.


How did your training at the Harvard Art Museums help you to prepare for the work that you are doing now?

I once described it as a “conservation wonderland.” Everything about [my Harvard Art Museums experience] was fantastic. I was very lucky to have both [former Senior Paintings Conservator] Katherine Olivier and [Conservator of Paintings] Teri Hensick as supervisors and [Project Paintings Conservator] Kate Smith as a colleague and later good friend. I think the set up of the program is also superb, as Fellows get a taste of each department through monthly visits. But most of all it was the sense of family; we were a tight group as interns, and we only got tighter after the passing of Melanie Green. We all learned from each other and we could just walk into another lab and ask questions. For me coming from Belgium it was fantastic to have such a great science lab. I could do all the things I had learned from books in real time with the help of top specialists such as [Senior Conservation Scientist] Narayan Khandekar, [Patricia Cornwell Conservation Scientist] Katherine Eremin, and [Associate Conservation Scientist] Jens Stenger. I can go on and on. When people ask me what my dream job is, I always tell them that I want to return to the Harvard Art Museums!