The origin and tradition of the Freer Gallery’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research date back to the 1950s. Archibald Wenley, then director of the Freer Gallery, recruited Rutherford J. Gettens to establish the Laboratory for Technical Studies in Oriental Art and Archaeology. Wenley, a man described as painstaking and meticulous, believed that knowledge of how art was made and used was a necessary complement to art-historical studies. He also recognized the need for a means to assess the condition of the art and gather information pertaining to preservation. During the three-year gap between Japanese painting mounter Kinoshita Kōkichi’s retirement in 1950 and the arrival of his successor, Sugiyura Takashi, no staff members at the Freer Gallery were tasked with collections care.
Rutherford J. Gettens stepped in to fill this vacuum. Gettens, a chemist, established what became known as the “Tech Lab” at the Freer. On March 16, 1952, a Washington newspaper, the Times Herald Sun, reported that “a finely equipped laboratory has recently been installed in special quarters in the basement, making the Freer Gallery, in effect, a research institution.”
In addition to his expertise, Gettens brought samples, books, equipment, and records from the Fogg Art Museum. He continued to bring in supplies throughout his years at the Freer, including both raw materials used by artists and specimens from art. Part of this collection became the core material for the Freer Gallery’s Study Collection, now maintained by the Department of Collections Management, and part of it remains as the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research Reference collection. Books that Gettens asked to purchase from the Harvard Library to support the establishment of the new Technical Laboratory, as well as several of his own volumes, remain part of the Freer Library today.
Increased demand for the technical study of art due to easier communication about the results of research and recent archaeological excavations led to renovations. They resulted in more than three times the laboratory space for the Technical Laboratory, renamed Department of Conservation and Scientific Research after the opening of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in 1988.
Gettens wrote an internal report in 1955, defining the work of the Tech Lab. He outlined the following areas of focus:
- Technical research for the purpose of contributing to the increase of knowledge and the interpretation of the collection
- Examination and treatment and repair of objects
- Conservation, defined as an “administrative function tied in with acquisition, storage, environment, framing, mounting, air conditioning, periodic inspection handling and other activities sometimes grouped together as museology”
- Public services
- Editorial work, services to professional societies, and committee work
These are still the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research’s main focus areas. However, their definitions and boundaries have changed and expanded, as reflected in staff members’ evolving responsibilities and activities. The development of conservation and conservation science as fields is reflected in Gettens’ initial proposal for the Tech Lab, and in the changing job titles found in the lab’s annual reports. Gettens was the head curator of the Tech Lab; later, W. Thomas Chase was head conservator of the Tech Lab. John Winter, an organic chemist, was hired as conservator in 1971, and in 1975 his job title changed to conservator-scientist; in 1976, to conservation scientist.