How do museums care for art collections?
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.
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.
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.
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!