TAKING care of historic works of art seems a thankless job - done in the cluttered, isolated back room of museums. But thanks to a small army of ``conservators'' - dressed in white coats and equipped with brushes, needles, and probes - some of the world's most treasured objects have been saved from complete ruin and decay under the weight of time.
At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here, Marjorie Bullock hunches over a 15th-century tapestry and gently pushes a threaded needle up through the bottom. Stitch by stitch, she fills the time-worn, frayed areas with new cotton threads of muted gold, brown, and blue.
Incredibly, Miss Bullock has been working painstakingly for 11 years to restore this 16-by-13-ft. Flemish masterpiece. Sometime this year, she will finish the tapestry, and ``Amazons Preparing for a Joust'' will again grace the walls of the Gardner Museum.
If it were up to her, however, the restored tapestry would get rolled up and placed in storage, where it would be protected from the destructive elements of light, moisture, and air pollution.
But that is not an option at the Gardner, as it is at most museums.
``Mrs. Gardner wanted people to enjoy these things,'' says Bullock, conservator of textiles. Isabella Stewart Gardner, a wealthy woman of the Victoria era, was revered in her time, as she is now, as one of America's most generous, public-minded patrons of the arts. She built her own museum so the public could view her priceless art - which over the years has earned international recognition.
The Gardner Museum must abide by its founder's mandate: The nearly 2,000 objects on display may never be added to, put in storage, or rearranged in any way. The staff is in a race against time to preserve these works, destined always to be exposed to the museum's environment.
Humidity, light, heat, dust, bugs, and car exhaust - all take their toll on the collection. Tapestries sag with moisture; metalwork corrodes; leather wall panels swell and shrink with shifting temperatures. In an unusual layout, three floors of galleries open onto a central courtyard, where natural light streams down through the glass roof.
The Museum of Fine Arts, just a few blocks away, does not have to deal with such a barrage of dangers. Unlike the Gardner, it has climate control, which includes air conditioning, air filters, and humidity regulation. In addition, the bulk of its collection is in storage.
But at the Gardner, even the flow of visitors is hazardous to the collection. ``People get very close to things,'' says Barbara Mangum, conservator of objects. ``Sometimes they even sit on the furniture or use the tables.'' In a way, that's understandable, she says, since ``the whole atmosphere is designed to make one feel comfortable'' - like walking through someone's home. Mrs. Gardner actually lived in an apartment on the fourth floor, as did subsequent directors.
MISGUIDED repair jobs of the past also cause decay. In one of the laboratories, Ms. Mangum holds up a chunk of a Greco-Roman marble sculpture from 50 BC. ``His thigh fell off,'' she says. Back in the 1800s, someone drove iron dowels into the leg to hold it together. When rust forms around the iron, says Mangum, ``that volume expansion causes the stone to crack.''
Mangum must remove the rusted dowels and clean off traces of shellac and lead that were used as adhesive and filler. Then she'll glue the thigh back onto the body with a colorless, stable epoxy.
``The [restoration] techniques here are very, very traditional,'' says Bullock, who has worked on textiles here for 20 years. This is no place to experiment with new-fangled ideas, she explains. The rule of thumb, adds her assistant, Ada Logan, is: ``Whatever you do, make it so it can be undone'' later, without ruining the object.
In the textile laboratory, conservators sit in front of tapestries wound up on long rollers and work on one unrolled section at a time. Various colors of cotton thread lie in clumps beside them. Bullock estimates it takes her about one month to complete one square foot of ``Amazons Preparing for a Joust,'' not counting frequent interruptions.
``You have to use a gentle-giant approach,'' says Ms. Logan, and this involves having a certain ``feel'' for textiles. Bullock says it's like watching people in a clothing store. ``If you watch some people shop, they are aware of fiber and weave, whereas others just whip through the racks without any sensitivity to that.''
Having an art background is paramount, too, she adds, ``because you need to have the eye and the dexterity to know what you're seeing.''
UNFORTUNATELY, ``tapestries make great air filters,'' says Bullock. A Flemish tapestry called ``Noah Builds the Ark'' was recently rehung after being cleaned and restored. When it was taken down five years ago, the staff noticed a film of grimy, black grit on the wall, showing faint outlines of the tapestry's pattern.
``Tapestries trap everything that floats by in the air and basically stick it on the wall behind them,'' explains Bullock. Now, a Gore-Tex insulating barrier hangs behind ``Noah.''
The conservators look forward to the day when the Gardner Museum will be climate controlled, a goal now in the planning stages. The staff recently concluded a two-year environmental study to help determine what the needs are.
``The age of the collection is accelerating so much,'' says Bullock, that it keeps a staff of nine full-time conservators going constantly. Early this year, the museum will be enlarging its conservation laboratories under the guidance of its new director, Anne Hawley.
Lisa Lesniak, dressed in a white coat and toting a tiny vacuum cleaner, stops in a hallway to talk about her job. She has just finished vacuuming ``inch by inch and row by row'' some of the silk and linen damasks wall coverings in the galleries.
``I like seeing the work, both in detail and how it becomes magnified within a broader context,'' she says. ``The work can be so detailed and narrow in vision, but it's done with the knowledge of the greater picture.''