Q&A: Johanna Puisto, Sculpture Conservator at the Victoria & Albert Museum


© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Victoria & Albert Museum is one of my absolute favourite places to visit in London, and I am thrilled to feature a Q&A with Johanna Puisto, a sculpture conservator at the institution. Since joining the Museum in 2005 Johanna has worked on many of the Museum’s projects conserving objects for a number of galleries including British Sculpture, Medieval and Renaissance and European Sculpture 1300-1600’s. She is currently preparing objects for the Europe 1600-1800 and the Cast Court galleries, which are both opening later this year. Johanna has also worked for the Museum’s ceramics and metals conservation departments conserving objects for the ceramics and jewellery galleries and toys for the Museum of Childhood . Johanna graduated in 1996 with BA (Hons) in Conservation and Restoration from De Montfort University in Lincoln, where she specialised in conservation of ceramics and ethnographic artefacts. Before joining the V&A she worked in the private sector conserving historic interiors including the St Paul’s Cathedral and numerous other historic buildings, monuments and sculptures in the UK. 

Check out my conversation with Johanna below! 

Why did you choose this particular career path?

I have always been fascinated by art and design and I wanted to have an occupation where I could combine my interest and at the same time ensure the preservation of our cultural heritage. Each project or object I work on is always a challenge and exciting discovery into past or into something that is unknown, which can be anything from finding an odd fingerprint or a tool mark on a sculpture, a signature that someone forgot to notice. It is also fascinating to investigate the technology on how the object was made and what happened to it after or what kind of interventions were there and who and why were they made. There are always questions and nothing is ever simple as such. The job provides satisfaction and enjoyment and it is hard not to get excited about something almost every day. However, conservation work can also be incredibly meticulous, repetitive and physically demanding and requires a certain kind of character to stay enthusiastic. 

Why has art always appealed to you?

Many of my family members and the people I know or grew up with were creative and were involved with arts or design one way or another. However, two of the most significant influences for my career choice were my mother who is a journalist and specialises in design (Tuula Poutasuo) who suggested I study conservation, and my grandfather (Oiva Polari), who was an artist and passionate about preserving the local heritage. He collected, restored and recorded local folk art and published his research and ideas. As a child I used to watch him paint or repair something and was deeply captivated by his creativity and talent.

What training and experience did you need to achieve for this role?

I did a three year course in decorative painting in Helsinki, and learned different techniques on how to restore decorative surfaces. After finishing the course I wanted to continue my studies and decided to learn how to gild. I attended a short, but very intensive gilding course at the Lahti Design Institute and decided to continue my studies in the UK at the De Montfort University, gaining a degree in conservation and restoration. The course gave me a broad understanding on how to care for different materials and after graduating I worked in the private sector, building my experience in various conservation projects. Some of the most memorable projects I was involved with were the conservation of a Great Staircase Hall at Belton House in Lincolnshire, owned by the National Trust. It was wonderful experience to work in a beautiful country house estate. Another unforgettable project, which I was involved with for a year was the restoration of the Victorian Gothic Choir Screen from the Hereford Cathedral, which is currently on display at the V&A. The screen was designed by Sir Gilbert Scott and is made of cast and wrought iron and various other metals and is also decorated with mosaic panels and other embellishments. I worked in a team and we had to lean the skill of polishing brass in a short period of time when normally that sort of skill takes years to master. I also worked at St Pauls Cathedral for about three years cleaning the stonework, monuments and the 19th century mosaics by William Blake Richmond and Alfred Stevens. The Cathedral was quite an extraordinary environment to work in. Whilst cleaning the interior stone with toothbrushes, the sound of the brushing would be accompanied by the choir practise unless the Eucharist would be taking place. Most of the time was spent suspended on the most unusual scaffolding structure that hung from the Cathedral’s dome.

What does your role at the V&A involve?

I work in a small team of sculpture conservators and we are responsible for ensuring the preservation, conservation, investigation and display of the Museum’s sculpture collection. There are approximately 22,000 sculptural objects in the collection, ranging from 4th century sculpture to 19th century plaster casts. A lot of our work takes place in the studio, which is based in the Museum, but we also work in the galleries and stores, as objects sometimes need to be treated in situ. The materials we work on vary from different types of stones to terracotta, wood, ivory, amber, rock crystal.. Sizes range from enormous architectural monuments to cameos and miniature figures. Time spent on analysing and interpreting the surfaces or the structure allows us to assess stability, but also contributes to understanding the object and its history better. We also deal with national and international loans making sure the objects are stable for travel and display and advise public and other institutions on how to care for objects.

Have you worked on any famous pieces?

I am currently working on a significant plaster cast, which is a replica of Michelangelo’s marble sculpture of David. The cast, which is made of plaster was a gift to Queen Victoria by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II, in 1856. You can read more about it on my blog ‘Uncovering Michelangelo’s David’, which can be found on the museum’s website under the V&A conservation blog. Other well-known pieces that I have worked on are from the Renaissance period and include a marble sculpture by Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) ‘Neptune and Triton’ and Giambologna’s sculpture ‘Samson Slaying a Philistine’ from about 1562. Although some objects in the collection are more famous than others, every object we work on is special in its own right and gets the same amount of care and attention as any other object would.

What are the highlights and challenges of your role?

Each day and each new object is always a challenge. There is so much work to do that one has to be able to make quick and innovative decisions, but at the same time ensure the safekeeping and preservation of the collection. The V&A is a very large institution and I am always able to consult and discuss matters with the numerous experts inside and outside the Museum.

What’s the best thing about working at the V&A?

The collections are just astonishing and people come all over the world to work, study or visit the Museum. I am fortunate to work in such a prestigious place with so many talented and likeminded people.

For an individual visiting the V&A for the first time, what pieces would you recommend that they see?

The magnificent Hereford Screen, which I worked on can be seen, as you enter the main entrance of the Museum and look up. The screen is displayed on a balcony in the iron works gallery.  The Medieval and Renaissance Galleries to the right of the main entrance hall are full of beautiful masterpieces of Italian Renaissance art including Giambologna’s Samson Slaying a Philistine. Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous notebook is also on display in one of the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries and it’s worth seeing. The Cast Court galleries are definitely worth visit, as they are sort of a hidden gem in the museum. The Italian Court, where the plaster cast of Michelangelo’s David is displayed, is currently closed for refurbishment, but is due to open by the end of this year. The temporary exhibitions are mostly best-sellers and worth seeing, but otherwise the Museum is full of beautiful and interesting works of art and every gallery is worth a visit.

What are your favourite pieces of sculpture?

I don’t really have a particular piece that I would love more than anything, although I must admit that at the moment I am pretty obsessed by a certain plaster cast called David. However, tomorrow I might be absorbed by something else.

Are you working on any exciting, upcoming projects?

I am currently working on two projects, where a number of galleries are being renovated and various collections are being assessed and conserved. One is to conserve the cast collection of hundreds of plaster casts in the Museum’s Cast Courts and the other is to treat objects for the Museum’s FuturePlan project Europe 1600 to 1800. I have also been involved with making a short film about the conservation  and renovation works in the Cast Court highlighting the conservation of the plaster cast of Michelangelo’s David. The film will be shown on the Museum’s website, where you can also search the collections and find all the details about the displays and conservation work.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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