Research: Hiroshige's One Hundred Famous Views of Edo: Conservation

Woodblock print: snowy landscape with stone bridge

Traditional Japanese color woodblock prints are among the most-light sensitive works found in museums and collections. Although some pigments used in the printing process are stable to light; others (especially several of the organic dyes derived from plants) tend to be quite fugitive to light. Scientific analysis undertaken in 1985 found that some of the more fugitive organic dyes will undergo noticeable color change and fading within 20 years of exposure to light under museum conditions. Many color woodblock prints, especially those collected in the West that were framed and displayed indefinitely, have long since experienced fading of the more fugitive pigments and dyes used in the printmaking palette.

The Brooklyn Museum's set of One Hundred Famous Views of Edo by Hiroshige is extraordinary not only for the variety and quality of the specialized printing techniques used but also for the pristine condition of the pigments and dyes. The inks are bright and vivid with no indication of fading or color change. When acquired by the Museum in 1930, the prints were bound together as an album and the book was placed in the Museum's library where it remained until the 1970s. During that 40-year period there is no indication in the Museum records that the album was ever displayed or the prints exposed to light. Although there is no information on the exposure history of the prints prior to their 1930 acquisition, one can assume by the freshness of the colors that the prints were either bound early on or that the individual prints were rarely exposed to light.

Knowing that the colors of this set are pristine and that any exposure to light begins a process of color change and loss, even if its not initially visible, the Museum has been extremely conservative in its exhibition and loan policies with these prints. The complete set was exhibited for the first time in 1987 and a second time in 2000. Additionally the prints were exhibited in groups of 25 by seasonal image (Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer) between 1986 and 1987. A few of the individual prints have also been lent for exhibition at other museums. The total exposure to light is factored by multiplying the duration of exposure by the intensity of the light. Intensity is measured in units called footcandles. All the above exhibitions were of limited duration, usually 6–9 weeks and the light intensity was lowered to 5 footcandles of illumination.

In order to preserve the prints for as long as possible, their exhibition will continue to be a rare and limited event. However, through the capabilities of digital imaging these prints in all their accurate detail and bright colors may be continually viewed and enjoyed on this Web site.

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