Antje Möller-Holzhauser, conservator at the Bauhaus-Archiv, in her workshop

Antje Möller-Holzhauser


Antje, as a conservator, you make sure that the objects are kept in good condition. What is that like working with the world’s largest Bauhaus collection?

I’m actually a paper conservator to be exact. It’s a specialisation which is most often required at the Bauhaus-Archiv. In fact, most of the items in our collection can be classified as “art on paper”. With respect to restoration, I’m “only” responsible for the paper-based collection, but as a conservator, I also take care of all the other collection areas. In terms of practical restoration, I unfortunately have to delegate a lot of work.

You’ve been working at the Bauhaus-Archiv now for 26 years. Countless pieces have gone through your hands ...

That’s right. And thanks to our move into our interim headquarters while the new museum is being built, I’ve seen even more. I’ve probably held about 70 percent of the collection in my hands. We had to take every single object off the shelves and out of the drawers, record it and pack it up. And even so, I’m always surprised at how many objects I haven’t seen before.

What piece was a conservational highlight for you?

It was a while back, but I still remember a lithograph by Moholy-Nagy from the master portfolio. The sheet had a darkened margin from a passe-partout, on which it had been mounted for a long time. The acid from the wood-pulp cardboard had leached into the paper and turned it brown. At the bevel cut, an especially dark border had formed over the graphic work and was aesthetically quite displeasing. I decided to use two different bleaching techniques, one of which was a light-bleaching method. You place the object in water and brighten it using light. You cover the areas which are not supposed to be bleached. Of course, before you start, you test the paper and paint application to see if such a method is suited for the work. Using this technique, you only see the final shades after the sheet is dry. It’s always a nail-biter, and that’s why as a conservator you have to carefully consider if and when you want to apply such a method.

Even in the area of conservation, don’t they say “less is more”?

Yes, in the past they used to carry out restoration on objects much more frequently than they do today. Meanwhile, the marks of time don’t have to be removed; conservation is now the primary focus, at least in a museum context. Right now, for example, we’ve been thinking a lot about how extensively we should be restoring the kitchen furnishings by Marcel Breuer. As luck would have it, the furniture only received a few coats of paints since it was made, because it had always remained in the possession of the customer. That means that we have a relatively good idea of what the original colour scheme was. Only few of the original pieces have gone missing. We’re tending to leave the traces of usage, even those caused as a result of design flaws. All these details tell us something about the history of the piece. Like the numerous marks left behind by the meat grinder, for example, which the customer and former owner of the kitchen had screwed onto the top of the kitchen table.

Before our interview, the scissor grinder came to sharpen the knife of the cardboard cutter in the restoration workshop. That sounds so hands-on. But as a conservator, your job has a lot to do with digital conservation, right?

At the moment, we’re considering everything that’s needed to digitalise the graphic arts collection. We take every sheet out of the drawer and record its condition. For instance, does the piece have to be scanned from both sides because there’s another drawing or important note on the reverse side? Is the sheet damaged, does it require restorative measures? Does it need a new passe-partout, or how do we want to store it in the future? We compile all this information in a large Excel table. And if we come across new details in the process, we add the information to our museum database.

A spring cleaning for the collection ... How does that work during a pandemic?

It’s great to get things in order, to process things systematically! Right now, I spend most of my time alone in the repository, assessing the objects. My colleague Stephan Böhmer sits at his computer in his office, and I send him the information for the Excel table via Zoom. To break up the monotony of all that data, I sometimes share some curious facts I stumble across when reviewing the commercial artworks. We’re processing the works by Herbert Beyer at the moment, and among all those amazing designs, I sometimes run across very amusing texts in the advertising inserts.

Your work is quite multifaceted. What aspects of it do you like the best?

I especially like working with the many different people who all pitch in to create an exhibition. It’s so much fun developing and realising ideas together with my colleagues from the archive, but also designers and exhibition makers. Like when you can’t present an object as you originally intended and have to quickly come up with other solutions. In the end, none of this effort should be visible to the audience – the visitors should simply enjoy a well-designed exhibition. That’s why I’m especially looking forward to the completion of our new museum and its first opening exhibition.