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Conservation Notes: Tea with Diane Borsato

November 18th, 2013

By Sherry Phillips, Conservator of Contemporary and Inuit Art

One of the six bone porcelain tea cups, English, dated approx. 1822-30.

One of the six bone porcelain tea cups, English, dated approx. 1822-30.

Tea Service (Conservators will wash the dishes)

Early 19th-century tea cups were temporarily removed from the AGO’s collection in order to be used for tea tastings by museum staff. Together, a group of conservators, a registrar, an interpretive planner, a curator, an artist and an art critic drank out of the re-animated cups, experiencing them through all of their senses and through shared conversation.

Three types of tea were served: Bai Hao Yin Zhen white tea (China), Tung Ting oolong (Taiwan) and a dark, 2001 Lahu Wild Trees 1,000-year-old Pu-erh (China). Before and after the action, a museum conservator washed the dishes. The action was documented by photography.

—Diane Borsato

One of several meetings to determine if and how the cups would be used for the artwork.

One of several meetings to determine if and how the cups would be used for the artwork.

Diane Borsato — artist, tea sommelier, beekeeper — brought her passion for tea and the culture around it to life in a unique way as part of her residency at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Her initial request was simple: could we allow a museum artifact to become a functional object again? Part of my role as the conservation contact for the Artist-in-Residence program is to try and help the group realize the artists’ ideas during their stay.

The discussion leading up to the proposed tea was more complex and richer than anything we anticipated.

Diane wished to use a tea set from the Grange collection and host a tea for a small group of staff members. Tea time is something of a tradition within the Canadian conservation community so it seemed to be a good, if unorthodox, fit. The tea would occur in the Conservation department, where she imagined “mischievous” conservators might be tempted to use a museum tea cup. She would choose a selection of teas, brew them appropriately and serve them to the group in the cups; it would be an hour of tea tasting, experience and dialogue.

Conservators Sherry Phillips and Maria Sullivan examine the glazing under the microscope.

Conservators Sherry Phillips and Maria Sullivan examine the glazing under the microscope.

Long before we could even approve the tea project, a group consisting of the artist, the registrar, the historical site coordinator of the Grange, the deputy director of collections, the manager of Conservation and the manager of Artist-in-Residence program met in the library of the Grange to chat about the project potential.

Is an imaginary line crossed when an object transitions from an everyday practical object to a museum artifact? What does it mean to take an object back across that line, to have it become a practical object again, even for a short time? The group’s thoughts ranged from strong discomfort bordering on refusal to a very measured approval based on research, history and application of certain conditions. The Grange collection is slightly unusual within an art gallery context but typical for an interpretive historic site. Many of the pieces were collected specifically to animate the house and have no connection to the original Boulton family. While there may be monetary value inherent in the object, the meaning of these six English bone china teacups and saucers (circa 1830) within the Grange context is minimal.

Conservator Sherry Phillips “washing the dishes.”

Conservator Sherry Phillips “washing the dishes.”

Regardless, the cups and saucers are accessioned objects and part of the history of the Grange and the early days of the AGO. They are fragile. There are cracks and open inclusions (trapped impurities) in the lead-based glazes. A sudden exposure to high heat could cause damage, or a simple accident during the tea could result in breakage. Our conversation staff discussed all this and more during the initial meeting but at the end the project was approved by the group.

The cups and saucers were brought to the Conservation department like any artifact — placed in a shallow box in their most stable orientation, protected by acid-free tissue and supported by weighted bags. They did not travel as teacups, cup upright and on a saucer. We examined the cups for stability, then cleaned in preparation for the tea.

Jennifer Fisher and Maria Sullivan smelling the pu-erh tea leaves.

Jennifer Fisher and Maria Sullivan smelling the pu-erh tea leaves.

The tea was a great success. Conversation was engaging, lively and ran the gamut from the history of china manufacture in England and Chinese export ware to the servant-employer relationship in 19th-century Toronto homes, the history of collecting in museums and definitions of value, to tea-drinking customs and tea production. Diane invited a special guest, critic and York University professor Jennifer Fisher, who will be writing about the experience.

So, was the tea and experience somehow transformed by the presence and use of the Grange teacups and saucers? Without a doubt. The act of drinking was slower and more deliberate because the delicate cups demanded it but also because we were aware of the value and uniqueness of the experience. The tea was clear, clean, fragrant and we savoured every drop. I couldn’t help but notice that all the conservators in the group would carefully cradle their cups in their hands and lean in over the table as they sipped — we couldn’t shake the compulsion to prevent potential object damage. Others in the group were no less careful but seemed to be able to drink in a manner more closely resembling the natural use of a teacup. It did feel mischievous, but it was also a privilege; a simple tea cup, a piece of tangible history, reanimated, became the conduit for meaningful dialogue about the tangible and intangible or traditions and customs associated with the cup and the beverage.

Diane Borsato (left) and the group.

Diane Borsato (left) and the group.

There was the sense that we were the first people to drink from the cups in 40 years and that we may be the last. We pondered the people who may have used the cups before us and the people who made the cups 180 years ago. A simple tea cup led to the unanimous assertion that objects are a real link to history. We wanted to find balance between preservation, potential risk and the cultivation of contemporary relevance.

At one point in the planning process Diane remarked that we were trying to have Toronto’s most difficult cup of tea. It wasn’t a straightforward cup of tea, but for one hour it was also Toronto’s most interesting cup of tea.


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