Preserving a 170 Year-Old Chinese Kite Collection

Posted on Wed, December 20, 2017
  • by: Carolyn Burns, paper conservation intern

Conservation work is continuing on the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s collection of traditional Chinese paper kites at our Emil Buehler Conservation Lab. Last summer, as a graduate fellow from the Patricia H. and Richard E. Garman Art Conservation Department at SUNY Buffalo State, I interned with Museum paper conservator Amanda Malkin, working on a full conservation treatment of one Chinese paper kite.

Carolyn Burns working on a full conservation treatment of a Chinese paper kite from the National Air and Space Museum collection. Credit: Carolyn Burns. 

Forty-three Chinese paper kites were donated to the Smithsonian Institution after the 1876 “Centennial Exposition,” formally called the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine, held in Philadelphia. Twenty-three of the kites were transferred in 1932 to what eventually became the National Air and Space Museum. These traditional Chinese paper kites are some of the oldest objects in the Museum’s collection and have a long and rich history.

Conservation efforts have focused on the stabilization of each kite’s original materials in order to prevent further deterioration and preserve them for generations to come. Amanda Malkin has completed treatment on four of the 23 kites and has another in progress. During my internship, she guided me through the careful analysis and treatment of one kite, simply named Kite, girl, while teaching me more generally about paper conservation materials, techniques, and procedures.

Kite, girl is one of 23 traditional Chinese kites in the National Air and Space Museum’s collection undergoing conservation treatment at the Emil Buehler Conservation Lab at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Credit: Carolyn Burns.


The first step to any conservation treatment is to examine the constituent materials of the object and understand its construction. Before treatment began, I performed a complete examination of the kite, including photography, research, and microscopic examination.

Like the other kites in the collection, Kite, girl is made from traditional Chinese materials. It has a split cane bamboo frame wrapped in Chinese paper. Gouache, an opaque watercolor, decorates the front of the kite with an image of a girl wearing a blue garment and black pants, carrying a red piece of paper and a basket.

In order to better understand the materials of this late 19th century kite, I executed a variety of scientific analytical techniques such as longwave ultraviolet induced visible fluorescence, X-ray fluorescence (XRF), and polarized light microscopy. Each technique can non-invasively examine materials and pigments.

The spectrum below identifies the elements found in the bright red-orange pigment of the girl’s shoes and the paper in her right hand. The largest peak, around the energy 10.5 keV, is the peak for lead (chemical symbol Pb). Knowing that the pigment red lead has a chemical formula of Pb304, and that it was commonly used in Chinese art as long ago as the fifth century BC, leads us to believe that this pigment is red lead.

The area of pigment sampled with the handheld XRF is marked with an asterisk in the middle of the red shoe, approximately a 4x5mm oval. The resulting elemental spectrum is shown below with the peaks identified. Credit: Carolyn Burns

This spectrum identifies the elements found in the bright red-orange pigment of the girl’s shoes and the paper in her right hand. The largest peak is the peak for lead (chemical symbol Pb). Credit: Carolyn Burns 

This in-depth understanding and appreciation of both material and manufacture is the foundation of conservation. Determining the condition of those materials becomes the next step to developing a treatment plan for the artwork.


Environmental stresses such as light, heat, moisture, and air pollution can be quite damaging to works of art on paper. Although much of Kite, girl appears intact, the pigments and paper were quite brittle and fragile. The pigment’s binder was weak and, in some instances, no longer holding itself together, causing the pigments to flake and powder off the surface of the paper. Previous repairs using brown craft paper tape and clear tape mended tears and losses on the back of the kite and around the edges. The surface of the kite was also covered with environmental dust and dirt.

With the goal of stabilizing the original materials, we proposed that the kite would undergo surface cleaning, pigment consolidation, tape removal, and humidification. The addition of a Japanese paper lining would restore structural stability to the kite. Finally, a new box would be constructed for safe storage and handling.


Conservation treatments are slow, meticulous, and careful. It cannot be assumed that seemingly identical materials will respond in kind to treatment practices. For example, the red lead pigment of the shoes is stable when introduced to water, while the red pigment in the basket is water-soluble. Therefore, it is important to progress methodically through the conservation.

I started treatment on the front of the kite by cleaning the overall surface to remove dirt and grime and stabilizing loose and flaking pigments.

Although the previous tape repairs have likely held much of the kite’s delicate paper together, the inherent acidity of the tape has degraded the kite’s original materials. I gently peeled away the tape using hot air or solvents to re-soften the adhesives. Local humidification was used to relax areas of the paper that were out-of-plane or in danger of cracking or further breaking when the kite was turned over.

Once the front was stabilized, surface cleaning and tape removal continued. Exposing the back of the kite was exciting as it revealed how the kite was constructed. The bamboo was lashed together with twisted paper ties, while the Chinese paper was so thin that the laid and chain lines (evidence of the handmade paper manufacturing process) were immediately apparent, and a graphite underdrawing was visible!

When the kite’s surfaces were clean and stable, the back was lined with Tengujo, a thin, yet strong, Japanese paper, toned to match the colors found on the kite. Areas of detached paper fragments were re-adhered and a new custom archival housing was created for safe storage and handling. As I wrapped up my internship project, it was exciting to see improvements in the kite’s aesthetic and condition at every step of the conservation treatment.  

Working on the kite while it was in the humidification chamber helped promote removal of stubborn tape adhesive. Credit: Carolyn Burns

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