Please Don’t Eat the Pictures: Caring for Collections

How do museums care for art collections?

In the 1983 film “Sesame Street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Cookie Monster has to resist eating delicious looking pictures. [Image: http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Don%27t_Eat_the_Pictures] (c) Sesame Workshop
Museum professionals work hard behind-the-scenes to make sure unique collections and cultural heritage survives for future generations to enjoy. The ways in which we store, handle, and light art objects are key to preventing damage and slowing deterioration over time. The professional term is preventative conservation, and it is the unsung hero of museum collections care.

You may have noticed that most museums are extremely vigilant about preventing visitors from touching the artwork.

Dirt and oils from hands can add up to damage over time. Cracking in painted surfaces is inevitable, as the different natural and man-made materials that make up canvas and paint expand and contract over time. But, pressure – from a hand or pointing finger, for instance – can result in extensive cracks that may not show up until later.

Details from: John Frederick Herring, Sr., The Start of the Derby, 1845, oil on canvas, 28 x 48 inches, Bequest of Elizabeth D. Clark, 2017
Concentric circles or bullseye cracks can develop from pressure (like a finger poke) that has been applied to a painting canvas.

And a careless gesture too close to a painting could result in more immediate (and very expensive) damage – like this $40-million Dollar Elbow.

Physical damage can also be caused by the environment. If you have ever hung a photograph in your home where it is hit by direct sunlight, you may have made the sad discovery that your picture has started to fade away. Works on paper – such as pencil, ink, watercolor, and especially photographs – are particularly sensitive to light damage. In the museum we monitor light levels carefully and use window coverings to filter out harmful UV light from the outside.

Routine cleaning and treatments also help prevent damage. We enlist professional conservators to combine science and chemistry with art to do so.

Sculpture conservator Andrew Baxter prepares wax to protect the bronze sculpture of a filly, Darn That Itch by Jean Clagett, on the NSLM campus.
Tools of the trade: The sculpture conservator uses wax tinted with different types of pigments to create a protective layer over the bronze.
A pre-treatment photo of the NSLM’s Sea Hero statue. Note the greenish hue, particularly on the base.
After annual cleaning and re-waxing, the green discoloration is gone and rain water beads and pools on the base of the bronze.

To learn more about the treatment of outdoor bronze sculptures and our Sea Hero statue, read this past blog post, Bath Time for Bronze Horses.

When damage does occur, whether naturally or by accident, conservators also help us repair and restore works of art. A large, four-paneled, 18th century sporting screen in the permanent collection is currently undergoing treatment by a conservator. In the photos below, you can see the progress so far. The left photo was taken before any cleaning or treatment. The right photo was taken during the treatment process after yellowed varnish and old discolored repairs have been removed. The bright white areas are filled-in repairs that will eventually be repainted.

Details from: (after) James Seymour, Four-paneled Sporting Screen, mid-18th/19th century, hand-colored engravings mounted on canvas, and oil on canvas mounted on a wooden frame, each panel 81 ½ x 27 inches, Bequest of Sonia Phipps Seherr-Thoss, 2006
On the left, photos taken before treatment show cloudy, yellowed varnish and old, discolored past repairs. On the right, photos taken during treatment show brighter colors and details. The areas of bright white are newly made repairs to old damage.

Once cleaning is complete and all repairs have been finished, the screen will be re-coated with a thin layer of protective varnish and can then be put back on view in the galleries.

It takes consistent care to keep these objects looking their best. If you want to help support the ongoing conservation efforts here at the NSLM, please consider making a donation!

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2 Comments

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  1. John – Fascinating. Perhaps we could have an evening or afternoon lecture and demo about their conservation work. I would be first in line!
    Viviane Warren

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