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Art Review: Behind the Scenes: Museum Style

Museum of Fine Arts Puts Mosaic Reconstruction Effort on Display

By W. Victoria Lee
STAFF WRITER

Rescuing a Roman Mosaic

Museum of Fine Arts

Through March 15

465 Huntington Ave., Boston

Once upon a time, there was a magnificent Roman villa in the ancient city of Antioch. Situated in what is today southeastern Turkey, the grand dwelling was known as the House of the Drinking Contest. Much like its formerly inebriated occupants, the villa, along with its courtyards and fountains, has become a vague memory of the past. However, one of its mosaic floors has just begun a second life at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

The mosaic includes a colorful mix of Cupids, dolphins, and fish made out of small clay or limestone pieces known as tesserae (tessera, tesserae, for you Latin buffs), nothing too extraordinary compared to other Roman mosaics from the same time period. What distinguishes the exhibit, however, is the fact that this particular piece of Roman mosaic floor is being restored, reconstructed, and conserved right in front of our eyes. On the second floor of the Museum in the Classical Gallery, there is a room with large glass windows, allowing visitors to peek into the studio and watch the conservators at work.

We’ve all seen how cartoon characters are animated, ship liners split, and aliens created in our favorite movies on … television screens. How about a “Behind the Scene, Live, Museum Style” show instead of those DVD “Special Features”?

The journey this art took to the MFA was a long and circuitous one. Although the floor was excavated in the 1930s, literally uprooted from a third-century home overlooking the Mediterranean, it sat idly in a crate at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Center in Washington D.C. for over 60 years, unseen by either scholars or the public. In 2002, the Museum of Fine Arts officially acquired the mosaic floor, and a series of cosmetic surgeries was planned to restore and conserve the ancient piece.

To transport the mosaic floor from its original site to the U.S., the archaeologists had to apply a heavy concrete backing reinforced with iron bars and chick wires that amounted to more than 6,000 pounds. Not only was this old-fashioned backing cumbersome, it also deteriorated and became unstable. The conservators at the MFA have since replaced it with a new support, and the entire complicated, laborious process is documented in a succinct video playing near the studio.

Although the backing has been replaced, much work remains. The conservators are in the process of cleaning the surface of the mosaic and reconstructing broken parts by deducing the missing shapes from the remaining patterns, a project that was started early last year and is slated to be completed in March. Catch the restoration process live at the MFA this January. For more information, visit http://www.mfa.org.