Behind the scenes: How the Cleveland Museum of Art restores world-renowned art

Posted at 2:20 PM, Mar 21, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-22 12:29:05-04

The Cleveland Museum of Art is considered a world-class institution for a number of reasons, but one reason that doesn't first come to mind is the museum's Eric T. and Jane Baker Nord Conservation Suite.

This is the first story in a News 5 series looking at behind the scene places in Cleveland's most iconic places.

Walking through the conservation department in the newly renovated 18,000-square-foot laboratory space, a visitor can find a conservator in one of the seven labs closely examining a unique 15-century engraving, re-layering silk paper on a 12th-century East Asian painting and carefully preparing objects such as vases and chandeliers to travel within the building or across the world to another exhibit.

While most museums throughout the country have a conservation department, not all have the highly specialized East Asian department because of the rarity in the skills and experience needed to store and conserve this Asian art. Joining The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, The Cleveland Museum of Art is one of only four institutions in North America with a conservation department dedicated to East Asian art. 

A master in what she does, Sara Ribbans is the Assistant Asian Paintings Conservator. Her work and training have taken her from the West to a studio founded in the early 1700's in Japan and back again. Working alongside her is Yi-Hsia Hsiao, assistant Chinese paintings conservator, and a visiting conservator from Japan, Keisuke Sugiyama.

Conservators and curators work closely together to coordinate which pieces will be part of an upcoming exhibit. Ribbons and her small team work on smaller pieces that require a clean up to ones that are more extensive, requiring the treatment and removal of not only the painting itself but the mounting, the border silks and the panels.

In the five years Ribbans has been at the Cleveland Museum of Art, she has restored and conserved hundreds of paintings. Because exhibits rotate every six months, some pieces require a quick turnaround while others take years to complete.

Ribbans explains how, in theory, once a painting is restored, it should be okay for another hundred years but because Asian paintings often use wheat starch paste, over time it begins to break down and will require remounting.

"The idea is the paintings get mounted and over time the material weakens. After 100 years, these paintings are meant to be remounted again," said Ribbans.

While the rest of the department uses more advanced treatments and conservation techniques using technology, Ribbons says how in East Asian paintings, the approach is slower and more traditional. 

"A lot of the skills we use are hundreds and hundreds of years old," Ribbans said. "Most of the studios in the East have traditions passed down from generation to generation.  Even though we're not in the East, we try to bring those same principles and techniques to the West. That translates to importing silk, hand-woven patterns, and paper from China and Japan."

With each day being different from the next, Ribbans emphasizes the importance of being a jack of all trades. Her job includes sewing, wood carving, and dyeing to name a few.

"I love my job. I love the tradition behind restoring and conserving a piece. There's a lot of craft involved, but being a part of history makes it worth it" Ribbans said.

Kaylyn Hlavaty covers news that's all about the pride we share in Cleveland. Have a story tip or idea? Drop her a line at or connect on Twitter: @kaylynhlavaty.