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She preserves centuries-old artworks for future generations

The Ackland paper conservator has compared her work to “removing marmalade from toast without dislodging any crumbs.”

Portrait of Grace White with graphic: Women making history
(Photo illustration by Andrew Jacobs/UNC Creative)

In honor of Women’s History Month, The Well introduces readers to women working at Carolina who are leaving their Heel print on the University and beyond. Read previous stories in the Women Making History series.

Why her work matters

Grace White, paper conservator, is a caretaker for the Ackland Art Museum’s 19,000 works of art in all media. She helps ensure the art remains accessible today and for future generations.

To prepare for the recent Peck Collection exhibition “Drawn to Life: Master Drawings from the Age of Rembrandt,” White assessed all the drawings and treated 22 of the more than 70 items in the show. The works white helped conserve are on view in Europe for the first time at the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam.

To prepare the drawings White mended small tears and removed old paper hinges. She also took on more complex challenges, like extracting a blob of glue from Studies of Three Standing Figures and a Head by Samuel van Hoogstraten, c. 1645-50. Working under a microscope, she applied and lifted a poultice, slowly and repeatedly, softening the adhesive with care not to damage the paper or ink, a job she likened to removing marmalade from toast without dislodging any crumbs.

Her most exciting task involved a slow and painstaking process to remove a heavy paper backing from a drawing by Abraham Bloemaert, Studies of Putti, c. 1590-1600. Her work led to the discovery of three delightful new sketches of putti that had not been seen in hundreds of years. The drawing is now housed in a double-sided mat and frame so both sides can be viewed.

What people say about her

Grace White has a passion for paper, which is evident in the way she speaks about the material and its many facets as well as the techniques she uses to treat and conserve it. Whether it’s a discussion about adhesive removal, tear repairs, capillary washing, and making her own solvents and poultices to looking at drawings under the microscope and reading infrared imagery, Grace’s enthusiasm and skill for paper conservation are apparent in all of her treatments. It’s been a pleasure learning from her and watching her at work in the Ackland’s paper conservation lab.

— Dana Cowen, Sheldon Peck Curator for European and American Art before 1950, Ackland Art Museum

Who she is

As a girl, White loved art but wasn’t convinced she wanted to make art. In high school, after seeing an exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art about art conservation — a team restoring the Sistine Chapel ceiling — she had a revelation: There’s a career that lets people play with old things in museums, and that was perfect for her.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in art from Georgia’s Covenant College, White earned a master’s in conservation of fine art, works on paper from Northumbria University in Newcastle, England.

Early in her career, White spent a winter in Alaska, traveling among museums that did not have their own conservation departments, including Barrow, mainland North America’s northernmost city, home to the Inupiat people — and polar bears, snowy owls and arctic foxes.

In addition to carrying out conservation treatments, White, who joined the Ackland in 2015, examines works of art to determine media and condition, advises on acquisition and loan decisions, and conducts educational lab tours for college students, school children, docents and other groups.

She loves the hands-on nature of conservation. She also loves the science, particularly chemistry — how materials like pigments, inks, adhesives and mat boards affect paper on a chemical level, as well as how it will react to changes in light, temperature and humidity. She might start her day by setting up aqueous treatments for a series of Daumier lithographs, then move to mending tears in colorful Japanese prints.

Adapted from stories posted by the Ackland Art Museum and The Well.