Lacma’s conservators discover 1960s colours in Ottoman interior

Damascene reception room is being restored before making its museum debut in Saudi Arabia in 2016

The restoration and conservation of the 18th-century Damascene reception room at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) is likely to change our view of what these late Ottoman interiors would have looked like in their original state, says Linda Komaroff, the curator and head of the museum’s Middle East department.

Beneath the dirt

Two centuries of grime is being removed to reveal brightly painted walls beneath the dirt. “Bright orange, pink and purple colours give the room a remarkably contemporary look,” Komaroff says, adding: “It’s something you would expect to see in the 1960s.”

Unlike many surviving interiors from this period, the walls were not repainted or varnished by the previous owners. In fact, accumulated dirt might have been a blessing in this case. “It actually helped to preserve the painted surface,” Komaroff says.

The 15ft by 20ft interior, which dates to around 1766, includes multicoloured inlaid stone floors, a stone wall fountain and richly decorated wood panelled walls embellished with ajami relief decoration made of gypsum and glue covered with tin leaf, paint and coloured glazes. The walls are decorated with 14th-century Arabic poems, floral motifs and depictions of platters of fruits and nuts. It was made off-site in Damascus and custom-fit for a house in the city’s al-Bahsa quarter. The house, like many historic properties in Damascus, faced demolition in the 1970s as the city’s streets were widened. A Lebanese dealer bought the room in 1978 and moved it to a warehouse in Beirut where it remained for more than 30 years.

Komaroff says the room is remarkably well preserved. The major missing element is the ceiling; water damage on the tops of the wall panels suggests that it may have been badly damaged by a leak.

According to Komaroff, most of the restoration work, which includes cleaning, stabilisation and repairs, is to be expected for a room of this age. The team is making new wood panels to replace the stucco that would have covered the lower walls, and a metal armature is being created so that the room can be self-standing.

The project’s original two-year schedule was shortened to a year to allow the interior to be displayed in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, for the opening of the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture—the main funder of the room’s restoration—in March 2016. It will be on display in Dhahran for two years. Where it will be installed when it returns to Los Angeles remains a mystery; the ceilings in Lacma’s existing galleries are too low.

“I’ve become obsessed with ceiling heights. I now know all of the heights of our galleries,” Komaroff says. The museum is working with the architect Peter Zumthor on a new building.

A painting of a fruit platter from the wood panelled walls of the Damascus Room at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo: © 2015 Frank Schaefer

Window on the city

What is certain is that if Komaroff has her way the historic interior will be installed near a window looking out over the city. “It would be nice to inject 21st-century Los Angeles into this 18th-century room,” she says.

Although the museum did not acquire the room until 2014, Komaroff began working towards the acquisition in 2012 when the political situation in Syria began to deteriorate. She sees period rooms as a good way to try to understand other cultures: “It’s different from looking at a picture or a sculpture. You can actually step into the space and become a part of it.”