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WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

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Friday, August 7, 2020

Carefully Conserving a Museum Treasure: the Worcester Hunt Mosaic

The Worcester Hunt Mosaic is one of the most impressive and iconic objects within the Worcester Art Museum. In addition to being among the first artworks visitors see when they enter the grand Renaissance Court, the floor mosaic’s compelling narrative can be viewed from any side.
The early-6th-century mosaic was excavated from a villa at Daphne in ancient Antioch (modern-day Turkey) in 1932. Hunting was an aristocratic pastime and a common theme in mosaics and other forms of art at Antioch, and more generally in the Roman world. The figures in the scene, hunters on foot and horseback attacking lions and tigers with swords and bows, face outward to the perimeter of the mosaic.

Fig. 1. Antioch, Roman, Worcester Hunt Mosaic (early 6th century). Cubes of marble and limestone
embedded in lime mortar. Excavation of Antioch and Vicinity funded by the bequests of the
Reverend Dr. Austin S. Garver and Sarah C. Garver 1936.30

The Hunt Mosaic, which was brought to the Museum in 1936, has seen many conservation campaigns over the years (Fig. 1). When the mosaic arrived at WAM, it was maintained primarily by mosaic artists. These initial conservation attempts unfortunately resulted in the use of nonreversible oil paints for in painting, inaccurate reconstructions of portions of the scene, and misplaced integration of tesserae from the borders of the mosaic into the central composition.

Additionally, the mosaic was perceived as an extension of the Museum floor rather than a work of art as it is today. Visitors walked on the ancient stone surface. Occasional performances and even dance parties took place on the mosaic. To protect the mosaic from damage from such activities, between 1937 and 2000 there are records of multiple instances of coating application and removal on the mosaic. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a more preventative approach was taken. All coatings were removed from the mosaic surface and a permanent railing was installed around its perimeter. Coating stone is not a conservation approach taken today.

Conservators now focus on developing treatment protocols that are minimally invasive and easily reversible. It was only in the 1990s that the Hunt Mosaic received professional conservation attention for the first time.

Due to its placement in the floor and its position near a Museum entrance, the mosaic easily accumulates dust and debris. Caring for the mosaic today involves the attention of the WAM conservation staff who regularly vacuum the mosaic and simultaneously keep an eye out for any damages or concerns. In the past year, in situ conservation work was conducted to continue conserving the mosaic (Fig.2). 

Fig 2. The WAM conservation team works in situ on the Hunt Mosaic in the Renaissance Court
before the Museum temporarily closed in March 2020 due to COVID-19.

In the early 2000s, small areas of loss were filled with painted, plaster tesserae (small pieces of tile) that eventually wore away. In addition, as a result of natural wear over time, thin cracks in these plaster fills began to form. The resulting area of damage needed to be stabilized by removing broken plaster tesserae and replacing them with new ones (Fig. 3 A & B). The cracked plaster tesserae were excavated using small scalpels, micro chisel tools, and a hide mallet. New plaster fills were cast directly from a silicone mold taken of the mosaic (Fig. 4). Plaster tesserae were cut to size, toned to match the exact color of the surrounding mosaic, and secured in place with a conservation--grade adhesive mixture (Fig.3 C & D). These meticulous steps guarantee creating a seamless transition with the original mosaic stone. 

Fig. 3. The intricate conservation process includes removing loose tesserae (A);
clearing crumbling fill material (B); placing new tesserae in areas of loss (C);
 and in painting white plaster tesserae with conservation grade pigments (D).

Fig. 4. A silicone mold of mosaic tesserae and the resultant cast plaster fills. 

From the early 1930s to the present day, the Worcester Hunt Mosaic is the focal point of the Renaissance Court at WAM. The preventative and less invasive techniques conservators now use will help preserve the mosaic for the future. We look forward to welcoming you back to the Museum this fall for you to see and experience the remarkable mosaic once again.

—By Elle Friedberg, WAM Pre-Program Intern in Conservation, and Paula Artal-Isbrand, WAM      Objects Conservator
August 7, 2020

“Hunting Scene.” Worcester Art Museum. Accessed July 6, 2020. https://www.worcesterart.org/collection/Ancient/1936.30.html. 

Becker, Lawrence, and Christine Kondoleon. The Arts of Antioch: Art Historical and Scientific Approaches to Roman Mosaics and a Catalogue of the Worcester Art Museum Antioch Collection. Worcester, MA: Worcester Art Museum, 2005.

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