What the Balboa Art Conservation Center, Ralph Waldo Emerson's Grandson, and a YouTube Video with More Than 2 Million Views Have in Common
Maybe you’ve seen this video already on social media. The one masterfully produced by Great Big Story that features intriguing glass vials filled with colorful pigments that have been collected from all over the world. The deep blues, vibrant yellows, earthy reds, and myriad other colors inside are made up of minerals, plant dye, dried insects, and many other materials, and are an important reference point for conservators, scientists, technical art historians, and others. Referred to as the Forbes Pigment Collection, this more than 3000 sample strong assortment is stored at the Straus Center for Conservation and Preservation as part of the Harvard Art Museums.
Back in the 1920s a gentleman named Edward Waldo Forbes (grandson of the famed philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson) began collecting pigments and their source materials over a period of several decades. An art historian, he directed Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum from 1909 to 1944 and laid the foundation for this unique collection. George Stout, a graduate student at Harvard at the time Forbes was the museum director, began using the samples as a teaching tool. Later Stout worked for the Fogg Museum, as well, becoming a pioneer in the field of art conservation.
Fast forward to the 1970s in San Diego: Henry Gardiner, San Diego Museum of Art director from 1969 to 1979, was significantly expanding the museum’s collection, and grew concerned about its ongoing care. In November 1973, Gardiner sought the counsel of George Stout, who happened to be the visiting director of the Timken Art Gallery (now the Timken Museum of Art) at the time. Together, Gardiner and Stout developed a plan to establish a conservation center in San Diego, and in 1974 hired Richard Buck, an important leader in the field of conservation, and fellow Harvard alum, to establish and direct the Balboa Art Conservation Center.
Buck had experience opening regional conservation centers. He had also been a conservator at the Fogg Museum, where he had helped organize and manage the Forbes Pigment Collection. At the time Buck was starting BACC, conservation centers could obtain a portion of the pigment collection to keep as a reference resource in their analytical toolbox. So, with Buck’s connections, the Balboa Art Conservation Center did just that.
To this day, BACC is one of only a handful of institutions that house a subset of this extraordinary pigment collection, both maintaining a tangible connection to the very beginning of the professional art conservation movement in the United States, and creating a new and fun connection to that wildly popular (more than 2 million views! ) video on YouTube.