Behind the Scenes at the DAM

How to Care for Japanese Scrolls & Screens, Part 1 of 2

Traditional paintings from Japan consist of ink, color, ground pigments, and/or gold applied in thin layers on a paper or silk support. They are most commonly presented in the form of scrolls and screens.  Though beautifully designed and aesthetically appealing in themselves, the screens and scroll supports are also intended to serve the function of protecting the pictorial imagery or calligraphy.

 

In caring for Asian scrolls and screens, it is important to be familiar with their materials and manner of construction. Scrolls are complex objects that consist of multiple layers of paper and silk. They may be configured in a vertical hanging format or as a hand scroll that is viewed horizontally. The top and bottom of a hanging scroll include wooden bars covered in silk. The top bar is known as the stave; the bottom bar is the dowel.  

Typically on a hanging scroll, knobs or jiku, are attached to either end of the bottom dowel. Jiku may be lacquered or carved wood, bone, ivory, or other special materials. Hanging and tying cords of woven silk are attached to the top stave with metal fasteners. Hand scrolls also have wooden dowels at either end and characteristically do not have knobs. Some Japanese hanging scrolls have two paper and silk strips called futai that are attached to the top stave.

Screens, like the one in the image at the top of the post, consist of individual panels that are joined together using intricately arranged paper hinges. The sturdy paper hinges allow the panels to fold onto each other in an accordion-like manner. The individual panels consist of numerous layers of paper and silk specifically configured over a sturdy, wooden lattice structure. Lacquered wood sections along with metal decorative elements frame the perimeter of the folding screen panels.

Scrolls and screens are susceptible to damage as a result of environmental factors, both on display and in storage. Stable temperature and relative humidity are important to prevent a range of damages. The recommended range for relative humidity is between 40-50 percent. The effects of light are cumulative and irreversible and cannot be overemphasized. Prolonged exposure to light, direct or in-direct, can cause media and silk to fade and paper to darken. Ultraviolet filtering glazing and film do eliminate harmful UV radiation, however, light from the visible range is also damaging. 

Part 2 of this blog post will discuss how to handle and clean these delicate objects.

Image credit:  Nakabayashi Chikkei, Travelers in Mountain Landscape, screen, Edo period, Japan.  Denver Art Museum: Gift of John and Celeste Fleming, 1996.285.1.

Sarah Melching is the Silber Director of Conservation at the Denver Art Museum. Sarah has been at the DAM since 2008.