Preserving history: NHS guest

Hayley Plotz

Examine, document, treat and
repeat. For Kathy Gillis, Head of
Sculpture and Decorative Arts
Conservation from the Virginia
Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA),
this process is perpetual for the
preservation of art and the history
behind it.
Students belonging to the National
Honor Society (NHS) and
art teacher Cindy McNamara’s
Art IV and IB Art were fortunate
enough to snag a visit from Gillis
in her few precious days left in the
area before she departed westward
to take the new position of Head of
Conservation at the Asian Art Museum
in San Francisco.
Gillis had returned from Beijing,
China, where she was head
of packing for the “Forbidden
City” exhibit, which opened at the
VMFA in October. This display is
the first appearance in the United
States of imperial artwork from
behind the wall of the Forbidden
Though proper packing is essential
in protecting priceless artifacts,
other elements must also be
“My job is to worry about longevity,”
Gillis said.
By conserving and protecting
the integrity of works of art, future
generations can catch a glimpse
into the past; this is what makes
Gillis’ job so important.
In the examination process, art
conservationists learn the stories
behind each piece, from the family
to which it belonged to the boat
that carried the piece over to this
Gillis is also behind the decision
to place glass over certain pieces
of artwork. Unknown to a portion
of the general public, by placing
hands upon a work of art, the oil
on fingertips can over time wear
away the piece itself.
For this reason, Gillis and her
team must act in the interest of
what is best for each piece of artwork.
“We’re not just mean. […] We
want those tapestries to be there
for your grandchildren,” Gillis
said. “The important thing is that
it’s going to be here in 100 years.”


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