Ringling Museum's conservation lab preserves, protects vast art collection

Ramsay uses a surgical microscope to examine a damaged 14th century painting attributed to Lorenzo Veneziano in the museum’s laboratory. Bits of tissue cover parts of the canvas on which paint is flaking. A group of Italian paintings await assessment.
Ramsay uses a surgical microscope to examine a damaged 14th century painting attributed to Lorenzo Veneziano in the museum’s laboratory. Bits of tissue cover parts of the canvas on which paint is flaking. A group of Italian paintings await assessment.
Published March 8, 2015


King Philip IV of Spain is looking good considering his age. His portrait, nearly 400 years old, by the great 17th century Spanish artist Diego Velazquez, sits on an easel in the conservation laboratory at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. It is being readied for its trip to Paris for a Velazquez exhibition co-organized by the Louvre at the Grand Palais.

Barbara A. Ramsay is the person in charge of King Philip's packing and his baggage. Like all old art, his portrait has its share.

Ramsay is the chief conservator at the museum's conservation laboratory, one of the few art museum conservation labs in Florida and probably the finest. Her job can be described as the official protector of every work in the Ringling's vast collection. There are paintings, prints and sculptures from the art museum, rare memorabilia from the circus museum, the Asolo Theater interior and decorative or personal objects from Ca d'Zan, John and Mable's historic home, all on the Ringling's 66-acre campus.

"The laboratory is responsible for the preservation of the collection," she said during a recent interview. "We do a lot of preventative conservation, examine works in detail for their condition and any damage."

Most museum-goers don't realize how punishing their love of art can be, especially on art that is centuries old. They introduce particles of dust and dirt and fibers from their clothes that swirl in the air and adhere to the works. They breathe, and when exhaling, the humidity compromises the controlled climate. Everything builds up, especially on objects that, in earlier life, weren't treated with much reverence by the popes, princes and merchant kings who owned them, so they often entered museum collections already having issues.

Even well-meaning attempts by early restorers have damaged art. Another challenge for conservators is that artists working 500 years ago weren't thinking about the 21st century, using paints, for example, that haven't held up well over time. They're all part of an art work's baggage.

"Restoration" is sometimes used interchangeably with "conservation" but they aren't the same. Until the early 20th century, damaged art was "restored" with the goal for it to look fresh and almost new. Artists painted over shabby patches of canvas or repainted altogether; they replaced parts that had been lost from statues, approximating what they might have looked like. The ethical question began to be asked: How much can we change a work of art before it becomes not the original but something else?

In the 20th century, scholars and museum professionals began to use scientific methods in dealing with old art that analyzed the chemical makeup of the original materials and how age or environmental conditions had affected them. Ways of treating the art became less invasive and more sensitive. Art restoration, without formal conservation practices to go with it, ceased being the respected norm.

Many restorers are good at their job, Ramsay said, but their knowledge and training isn't standardized. "There is no licensing or certification in the U.S. for restoration. Anyone can say they are a restorer. Many are using terrible materials."

Conservators have university degrees and are members of professional associations that adhere to a code of ethics that stresses minimal intervention, reversible methods and full documentation of all work. They "have a good understanding of chemistry, biology and physics," she said, knowing which solvents and cleaners among many to use, sometimes developing a new solution that addresses a particular surface problem.

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Her tools range from sophisticated to humble: surgical microscopes that can look into the cracks on a canvas in an effort to understand why they occurred; cotton swabs that are rolled across a surface to clean; tweezers that pick off an errant piece of thread that somehow embedded itself into a work; scalpels that fleck brittle bits of paint covering the original painting.

"Right now we're using the best methods but in 50 years, there may be better scientific ones," Ramsay said. "Conservation at its best is preventative so restoration isn't necessary. We try to preserve as close to what the artist intended. If changes were made already, we try to remove them. Everything we do has such a high degree of risk that can be reduced by a cautious approach."

The Velazquez portrait is a good case study. For years, its authenticity was called into question. Some of them arose from art historians' knowledge of his methods and anomalies they saw in this painting.

"You can see that it's painted on red ground (a base coat for the canvas)," said Virginia Brilliant, curator of European art at the Ringling, which has one of the finest collections of Baroque art in the United States. "He used red before he went to Italy. This painting was supposedly done after his return."

But there are clues that suggest he started it earlier and completed it, with changes, later, a theory seen in alterations that have become visible only over time, as the layers of oil have become more transparent. Those once-hidden elements — little squiggles he made on the canvas to dry his brush, for example — are called pentimenti. Fortunately, they weren't obscured by restorations. Most experts regard it as genuine, said Brilliant, and being asked to participate in the Paris exhibition is important validation.

"The painting didn't require a major treatment (before it travels)," said Ramsay, needing only a bit of invarnishing (replacing tiny areas where the varnish had dulled) and a gentle dusting using a brush with long, soft bristles.

Ramsay, 61, has a bachelor's degree in biology and was admitted to graduate school for a higher degree in genetics when she decide to switch to art.

"I was surrounded by art growing up," she said of her childhood in Canada. "My father was an architect and my mother a painter and I always loved it. I couldn't decide between biology and art but after a trip to Europe and the museums there, I decided to go into art." She took studio classes "but never considered being a practicing artist. I didn't want to give up the science."

She received a master's degree in art conservation and worked for the prestigious National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa for almost 20 years, becoming its senior conservator of art. She spent 15 years at a private fine arts services company in Washington, D.C., as director of conservation with important commissions such as working on murals in the Capitol building and on hundreds of paintings in the estate of the late artist Clyfford Still.

Ramsay came to the Ringling a year ago when the previous conservator retired, charged with building up the department, which now has just herself and one assistant. She often brings in freelance conservators with specialities in fields other than her own, which is painting.

"I would like to see six to seven more conservators plus interns (on staff)," she said.

A constant task for Ramsay is evaluating art that other museums want to borrow.

"We have a lot from significant institutions," she said, and it is her responsibility to make sure they're in a condition suitable for traveling. Even in custom crates with a courier overseeing its handling, small movements can trigger bits of paint lifting from the canvas, for example.

The conservation lab isn't yet accessible to Ringling visitors, though it was designed at some point to be so with windows along an inside corridor giving passers-by a full view of its workings. She said there are plans "to make it more a part of the visitor experience soon."

Ramsay is focusing on a new project, the examination of the museum's 300 Italian paintings for a catalogue that Brilliant, the curator, is writing.

King Philip stands among them, ready to be maneuvered into a custom crate measuring more than 9 feet by 6 feet. Ramsay will make sure he's well-packed, fragile baggage and all.

Contact Lennie Bennett at or (727) 893-8293.