In the museum’s Asian Art print collection vault, Susan Thomas carefully pulls out a black drawer, one of hundreds. “Oh, this is a good one,” she says. Inside is a carved woodblock from Hiroshige’s Eight Views of Ōmi series titled The wild geese returning home at Katata. Next to the piece of carved wood sits a stack of prints at varying stages of completion. Susan reads a small notation on the matting of one print, “The evening snow at Mt. Hira,” and sifts through the ancient stack as if it were a family album. This drawer reveals the stages of the printing process, and in turn reveals the meticulous process of recording and preserving that is so crucial for a museum collection.
Susan is the museum’s Robert F. Lange Foundation Conservation Technician. That title is important, she says, “because we owe so much to the generosity of the Lange Foundation for funding conservation and care of the Asian art collection, research and cataloging, photography, e-museum, exhibitions here and abroad, and more. It would not be possible without their support.”
When Anna Rice Cooke dedicated the museum in 1927, she charged future generations with the obligation to uphold “cultural legacy.” The museum has upheld that effort, and Susan takes the mission seriously. For more than 20 years, she has been part of the specialized team working to conserve and maintain objects in the collection, honoring their historic cultural value through preservation. (She’s been here long enough to recall the days when centipedes and scorpions were occasionally found in the museum basement—something that doesn’t happen now.) She tends to the works in collections bequeathed to the museum by collectors like James A. Michener and Philip H. Roach. And in addition to the museum’s more than 10,000 woodblock prints, the Japanese art collection includes more than 10,000 books from the Richard Lane collection, which the museum acquired in 2003. Each print needs to be unhinged from old acidic mats, and every book needs to be carefully wrapped in acid-free paper, just to be safely stored. It’s clear that she finds the process gratifying. She loves making little discoveries that reveal how personal these collections are, pointing out a 1936 Christmas stamp that had been used as a makeshift hinge, now preserved in a little glass case.
“In 1992, I had just graduated from U.H. with a BFA degree in Glass and really wanted to work in the arts field. I was very fortunate to see an ad in the newspaper for a ‘paper technician’ to mat the Japanese woodblock print collection at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. I had no idea how to ‘mat,’ but I hoped they would be willing to train me—it would be a dream come true to work with beautiful Japanese prints, like Hokusai’s Great Wave, and at the art museum. It would be incredible!”
In addition to her art degree, Susan had worked as a dental assistant and hygienist for ten years. “That combination of science, attention to detail, fine motor skills, and an appreciation for art was why I was chosen for the job,” she says. And the wealth of knowledge Susan has gained in her time here makes her an invaluable asset to the invaluable collections.
“I now perform some minor conservation treatments such as mending, flattening and cleaning works of art on paper,” says Susan. Depending on the needs of each piece, Susan makes assessments and then employs “archival methods to properly mount and frame it.” However, it’s not always straightforward. At one time, during the “perfect storm,” as she calls it, “there were hundreds of Japanese prints from the museum’s collection simultaneously on view in Japan, Switzerland, and here at the museum. The logistics of preparing hundreds of prints for travel was daunting, and it took months of planning and preparation,” Susan explains. It’s not as simple as packing peanuts and masking tape. When a piece is going to travel, it needs to be placed in “a ‘passe-partout,’ which is a sealed, climate-controlled package with a visible humidity monitoring card.”
She knows a lot about humidity. “I’m like a canary in a coal mine,” she says, explaining how she can tell if something is off by the way it feels when she enters the vault. The hydrothermograph—basically a seismograph for humidity levels—usually confirms her suspicions. When she is “friction drying” paper, “the print is sandwiched between lightly humidified Japanese paper and pressed flat with absorbent blotters.” Her control over humidity puts Susan on the frontlines in the fight against something most of us don’t even think about: mold.
Throughout the year, Susan and her team are busy working behind the scenes. “The third shunga exhibition is opening in November here at the museum. The past two shunga shows have included around 100 works of art so I’m raring to go as soon as I get a final checklist.” (Learn about the last shunga exhibition here.)
In the meantime, before the shunga storm brews and countless other works are slated to travel to museums around the world, Susan is busy with matting, framing, and fixing the frayed edges of old paper—Monday through Friday. Then, weekends, she often spends her free time soldering silver, fusing glass, and enameling—part of her jewelry-making hobby. “I also enjoy outdoor activities with friends and family,” Susan says, “because the beautiful weather and unique beauty of our island home energizes and inspires me every day.”