How long have you been at the Met?
I started in 1980, installing period rooms in the American Wing, including the Frank Lloyd Wright room. After that I helped with the Gubbio studiolo, a Renaissance room; that was a five-year project. In 1995 I was offered a permanent position as a mount-maker and I’ve been doing that ever since.
What was involved in safely shutting your studio down in March due to COVID-19?
Usually our studio—which we share with the conservation department on the fifth floor—is filled with art objects. We had about two days to get everything into storage. We were able to store some small objects in cabinets, and others went into a big vault on the ground floor. Department technicians also came to collect some of the art. And we had to clean our work space as much as possible so essential staff could come in to disinfect after we were gone.
What were you working on when this happened?
We had just finished installing the Sahel exhibition, about the area in Africa south of the Sahara. I was also working on an Egyptian mummy case so that it could be re-installed vertically, and my team was redoing the mounts for six of the larger musical instruments. And there was a jewelry rotation in the American Wing in progress. There are five permanent mount-makers, and we’re usually working with sixteen different museum departments. So we’re very busy! It was business as usual before the shutdown.
When were you able to resume on-site work?
Not until mid-July or so. We’ve come in a few at a time, working on mounts for “Making the Met,” which was supposed to open in late March and but is now opening on August 29, when the museum reopens to the public. I’m working on mounting a platter to a thick piece of plexiglass backboard that’s bent at a 60-degree angle; you can see the mount from both sides now so it has to be lacquered and have felt attached. Before it was flush against the wall so you couldn’t see the mount. We were about two-thirds done when the museum shut down, so there have been several things to finish: some Coptic objects, some chainmail, a few vases.
What procedures do you have to follow now that you’re back at work?
We have to wear masks at all times when we’re in the building. Anything we touch with our bare hands—on-and-off switches for our machines, sink faucet handles, the paper towel dispenser, all of our tools—has to be disinfected with alcohol at the end of the day. I find it easier to just wear gloves all the time.
What has working from home been like for you and your team?
My group, we use our hands for our job. We’re really used to coming into the shop every day, but we weren’t able to do that for four months. I had an idea to start writing a handbook about mount-making, with all five of us contributing chapters on different topics. We have about thirty pages already and are going to add photos when we get a chance.
We have about a hundred years of experience combined, and most of us have learned on the job. It’s more like a guild system; there isn’t really a school program that teaches this. When we hire someone, we often look for a background in jewelry-making or metalsmithing. But even with those skills, there’s a lot to learn about joinery techniques; how to inpaint and apply felts; what is the correct etiquette in the galleries when dealing with curators or designers. All of this will go in the handbook. I’ve been doing this for over twenty-five years, and even I’m learning new tricks and tips from my colleagues.
—As told to Leigh Anne Miller
Q&A with Frederick Sager, managing conservation preparator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New YorkRead MoreArt in America, Interviews, Frederick Sager, Hands On, Making the Met, Metropolitan Museum of ArtARTnews.comRead More