In the late 1940s, the Hermitage was in need for creation and development of a new restoration and conservation area: the restoration of mural painting. This was due to two factors. The first one was the grievous condition of the large Hermitage collection of loess plaster-based wall paintings exported from Xinjiang by the expeditions of Russian scientists in the early 20th century. During the siege of Leningrad, these paintings stayed in the Hermitage and began to deteriorate from the moist and unstable northern climate. Any attempts to fix them with aqueous adhesives were ineffective, and in some cases, they caused further deterioration. The second one was the discovery of loess plaster-based mural paintings made with glue paints in the course of excavations carried out on the site of the ancient settlement Pendjikent in 1947. These paintings could only be saved by fixing them on the spot, taking them off the walls and then placing them under museum conditions. This was also the impetus for the development of new restoration and conservation methods.
P.I. Kostrov, the leading restorer of the State Hermitage Museum, together with I.L. Nogid, chemist of the State Hermitage Museum, and Ye.G. Sheinina, restorer, started looking for a fixative material for glue painting on porous loess plaster, upon consultation with leading experts in the field of polymer chemistry D.A. Chegodayev, A.Ya. Drinberg, S.N. Ushakov and E.I. Barg. Two restoration process stages (field and laboratory) determined a number of methodological requirements for the choice of such material. In addition to the basic requirements such as strength, durability, light resistance and non-reactivity, three more came to the foreground:
– ability of a fixing agent (solutions) to provide in-depth fixing both in the field and in the laboratory;
– reversibility, i.e., the possibility of repeated or recurrent dissolution of the fixing agent, sometimes after a considerable period of time;
– possibility of application of this fixing agent under different conditions (temperature and humidity parameters, circumstances of finding, etc.) and using various materials and painting techniques.
A method based on the use of low-viscosity polybutylmethacrylate (PBMA-LV) which has the necessary restorative material properties was developed. It is colourless, lightfast, chemically inert, and is resistant to aging; it has sufficient adhesion and is soluble in organic solvents of different classes. Fixing with PBMA-LV solutions is reversible and such reversibility does not change over time.
Laboratory treatment of the first paintings taken off walls, as well as restoration of paintings and sculptures of Xinjiang in 1949-1950, was carried out in the workshop of restoration of paintings by Ye.G. Sheinina, employee of the Oriental Department, with the participation of K.G. Bolshakova and under the supervision of P.I. Kostrov .
In 1954, a group consisting of Kostrov, Sheinina and Bolshakova separated from the workshop of restoration of paintings as an independent team of restorers of applied art and frescos. However, an increase in the number of monuments requiring restoration dictated the need for further reorganization.
In 1955, a workshop for restoration of mural paintings and loess sculptures officially named Laboratory for Scientific Restoration of Monumental Painting (LSRMP) was established under the leadership of P.I. Kostrov. At the same time, a group of art historians, archaeologists and artists came to the workshop and formed its team: M.P. Vinokurova, T.V. Kovalenko, T.S. Vasilenko, L.P. Gagen, G.I. Ter-Oganyan, R.M. Belyayeva and Yu.Yu. Nachinkina. Their restoration professor became P.I. Kostrov who was a talented teacher. Soon they became skilled restorers and experts in all areas of workshop activity and did much to develop techniques and improve restoration processes.
In 1967, the laboratory was headed by Ye.G. Sheinina who maintained and developed methods and traditions established by P.I. Kostrov. Ye.G. Sheinina entered the Hermitage in 1947. Since 1949, she has headed the field restoration work in Pendjikent as a restorer and has been the operations manager for more than 20 years. In 1962-1963, frescoes discovered during excavations of an ancient temple of the 7th-13th centuries in Smolensk were removed from the walls for the first time in the Russian archaeological practice with her participation and under her leadership. A similar procedure was carried out in 1974-1978 during excavations of a temple of the 14th century in Pskov. Guided by Ye.G. Sheinina, a series of experimental projects was carried out in order to improve restoration techniques. Ye.G. Sheinina, a highly skilled and talented leader, headed LSRMP until her tragic death in March 1995. Since then, A.M. Blyakher has been in charge of the Laboratory.
The method of restoration initially created to conserve loess-based glue painting was then used for painted loess sculptures, and later, upon adjustment, it was applied to fresco paintings on lime plaster. The variation of solvents, concentration of solutions, and drying and fixing regimes used has created a significant range of restoration techniques.This has extended the technological capabilities to be included in laboratory activities, including restoration of a wide range of painting monuments made using different techniques such as glue, tempera and encaustic and having a different basis such as wood, stone, ceramics, plaster, papier-mache, etc.
Since its establishment, the Laboratory’s activities have developed in two directions. The first is associated with the materials of archaeological expeditions. Field restoration work on the archaeological expeditions in Tajikistan (Pendjikent), Uzbekistan (Paikend), in the Crimea and Kyrgyzstan has been carried out every year since 1955. Since 2009, the Laboratory staff has participated in a joint Italian-Russian archaeological expedition in Stabia (Italy).
The second direction is the restoration of the State Hermitage Museum collection of exhibits from almost all museum departments; such exhibits almost double the materials from archaeological excavations.
At all stages of the Laboratory existence, its practical and experimental work has been aimed at finding the right balance between two contradictory trends. On the one hand, it is the need to prepare a work of art for exhibiting while maintaining its artistic features, on the other - to preserve the authenticity of the painting, its condition and texture as a historical and artistic object. At the early stages of the Laboratory’s work, the first tendency prevailed and, therefore, partial reconstructions were allowed. So, 50 years ago, many paintings underwent toning with partial reconstruction in accordance with a resolution of the Restoration Council; they were restored at the same places during re-restoration in 2013.
Results of the most significant restoration work carried out in the Laboratory were presented at various conferences and published in Russia and abroad. In 2011, LSRMP participated in the International Restoration Salon in Ferrara (Italy), where the Laboratory staff reported on restoration of mural painting on various bases.