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The preservation and restoration of the works of art in the collection are the responsibility of the five conservators, who, along with members of the photography and registrar’s offices, make up the fourteen-member staff of the collections management department.
All sculptures begin to change from the moment the object leaves the artist’s studio. In the case of outdoor works, natural aging and the physical impact of light, temperature, humidity, air pollution, and handling all take their toll. Nonetheless, there are many benefits to viewing works of art outdoors; visitors can experience the works in a unique context in combination with foliage, architecture and even the weather. While viewing sculpture in an outdoor context can bring new meaning and depth to the visitors’ experience, these benefits must be navigated relative to the risks the works face from the effects of the elements, animals, and human interactions. Much of the Hirshhorn Museum’s outdoor sculpture conservation internship may at first sight appear to be routine, but the preventative measures that we carry out are essential in minimizing deterioration.
It may be surprising that massive sculptures made of steel or bronze are vulnerable to the elements. Yet, when bare metals are exposed to moisture and air pollution, corrosion can begin, gradually weakening and degrading the metal and putting the sculpture at risk from structural failure. Rain water can also pool in low areas and crevices and, as pools evaporate, they leave behind crusty areas of mineral deposits that are aesthetically disfiguring and difficult to remove. This is why a major part of the intern’s role is to ensure that these vulnerable works are suitably protected when on display. Regular cleanings of all of the sculptures and the application of thin, protective layers of wax to the bronze sculptures has become an essential part of the annual maintenance program of outdoors sculptures at the Hirshhorn. In some cases it is not necessary for us to apply the protective wax coating because an element of the artwork, such as a layer of paint, acts as the protective surface.
Figure 1. Corrosion, grime, and spider-webs on the underside of a painted steel sculpture
Figure 2. Corrosion on a painted steel sculpture
Although it is a delight to see creatures roaming throughout the sculpture garden, birds are rapidly becoming an unbeatable foe for this summer’s sculpture conservation interns. It seems just as quickly as a sculpture is cleaned of droppings; more birds come along to replace what has been removed. As aesthetically disrupting as bird droppings can be, they also pose a significant risk to the sculptures. Bird droppings are acidic and when left in place too long, they can etch into the metal, creating areas of uneven corrosion thus making the sculpture more difficult and complicated to treat. Bird droppings can also stain or etch painted surfaces, leaving disfiguring marks that are tough if not impossible to remove.
Figure 3. Bird droppings on a painted steel sculpture
The public also can erode sculptures, even if unwittingly. Despite explicit signage and a diligent security staff, sculptures can prove so enticing that some visitors are tempted to touch and even climb on them. While the sculptures are meant to be enjoyed by the public, human interactions can be very damaging. The cumulative impact of thousands of finger and hand prints can rub away the artist’s finish. Natural oils, sunscreen, and lotions react poorly with paints and waxes, and jewelry and clothing can easily scratch a sculpture’s delicate surface. Less common, but often more damaging is vandalism such as graffiti which can result in the need for major treatment. When these types of incidents occur they can penetrate the protective layer (wax or painted surface) which will allow the elements to interact with the underlying metal causing corrosion and possibly structural damage. Public outreach is proving to be a rewarding aspect of our time in the sculpture garden as we speak to inquiring visitors about our work. These conversations help educate visitors about the importance of conservation and the negative impacts of physical interactions with artwork.
Figure 4. Graffiti scratched into the surface of a painted steel sculpture
Figure 5. Scratches on the surface of a painted steel sculpture caused by the abrasive clothing of climbing visitors
With each sculpture we examine, document, and clean, as interns we are witnessing how each of these risks can be manifested in different ways, and how the work of past interns has successfully prevented damage and helped maintain the beauty of the Hirshhorn Museum sculpture garden.
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden displays approximately 46 outdoor sculptures on the Plaza and in the Garden made of various materials, most predominantly bronze, but also painted steel, chrome-plated metals, and even glass. Although many of these sculptures were intended to be displayed outdoors, the materials are still susceptible to damage from the weather, wildlife and visitors. As a result, each object requires annual maintenance to protect the materials from their environment. In 1983, the Museum created an internship program with the dual goals of caring for the outdoor collection and educating pre-program conservation students about the specific needs of outdoor sculpture (Pre-program interns qualify as students who are working to fulfill the rigorous pre-requisites in chemistry, art history, and studio art and the required experience hours in conservation prior to their acceptance into graduate school for conservation). Each summer, interns work closely with staff conservators to address the annual maintenance of the collection on-site as well as at off-site locations such as Anne-Marie Gardens in Solomons Island, Maryland, where 23 sculptures are on long-term loan.
These labor-intensive treatments begin with photographic documentation of each sculpture in order to assess changes that have occurred to the artwork throughout the year. In the case of metal-alloy sculptures—the bulk of the collection—it is necessary to protect their surfaces from a wide range of damaging elements. Dust can scratch and abrade the metal; handling by visitors leaves behind aggressive oils that etch the metal surfaces over time; and atmospheric pollutants which, when combined with moisture, cause corrosion. The first step in caring for these works is to wash them with a non-ionic surfactant to remove any surface accumulations. The sculptures are next heated and a layer of micro-crystalline wax is applied. The heating helps the wax layer to penetrate more deeply into the pores of the metal. This wax layer must then be buffed in order to create an even and thin protective barrier against moisture and aggressive elements.
While the wax treatment is effective for approximately one year and needs to be conducted annually, the protective layer of wax can be severely compromised by constant touching by visitors which accelerates the degradation of the protective wax barrier. This is why interns frequently take the opportunity to communicate and educate the public both about conservation and the importance of the “no touching” rule.
Figure 1. Interns Leah and Tim wash a painted steel sculpture.
This year, the internship program is separated into two 12-week sessions. This blog will document many of the interesting treatments and conservation topics approached by the interns. The first session welcomes Caitlin Richeson, Leah Bright, and Tim Linden.
Caitlin graduated in 2012 from the Maryland Institute College of Art with a BFA in Art History, Criticism and Theory with a concentration in Curatorial Studies. She has previously completed pre-program internships with the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Underwater Archaeology Branch and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Archaeological Artifacts Conservation Lab as well as with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. After this year she hopes to enter into a graduate program in art conservation.
Originally from Fairbanks, Alaska, Leah, graduated from the University of Oregon in 2010 with degrees in Art History and Spanish, and she has completed several pre-program conservation internships throughout the Smithsonian Institute since 2011. This fall she will begin a master’s program in art conservation at the Winterthur University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation.
Tim is originally from California where he graduated from the University of Southern California with a BFA in studio arts and a BA in interdisciplinary archaeology. He recently worked for a private conservation company and with artist Liz Larner, and also worked in both Guatemala and Peru on archaeological excavations. After this year, he also hopes to obtain a graduate degree in art conservation.
Figure 2. Interns Caitlin, Leah and Tim buff a recently applied wax barrier layer.
Dr. Susan Lake is the head of Collection Management as well as chief conservator. The staff focuses their work on paintings and mixed media objects, works on paper and new media, outdoor sculpture, and matting and framing. The conservation staff must continuously strike a balance between the specialization needed to attend to materials and techniques and the versatility and creativity required to tackle the unexpected.
Conservation began at the Hirshhorn shortly after its founding in 1974. At that time, the works of art reflected both the tastes of its founder, Joseph Hirshhorn, as well as the art being made at the time. From a conservation standpoint, areas of expertise fell into the remarkably conventional ones of paintings, sculpture, and works on paper. Collage and assemblage, which often consisted of elements of all three, usually fell to the conservator whose area of expertise reflected the dominant medium. Outdoor sculpture, a major emphasis from the beginning, largely consisted of bronze, painted or coated steel, and stone works. Photography was not extensively collected.
When James Demetrion became director in 1982, the Hirshhorn began to emphasize contemporary art, and the conservation lab was strongly influenced by that change. The last quarter of the twentieth and the first years of this century have seen a progression towards materially complex three-dimensional work, often large in scale and conceptual in nature. In some cases, the works have such a short “life expectancy,” a transience that is often intentional, that preservation itself has had to be redefined, or it risks being relegated to an ironic anachronism.
Another change has been an explosion in the production of photography, film, and video. The processes used in the creation of such works are quickly evolving, and, with changes in technology, their stewardship requires a long-term process of migration, reformatting, emulation and other processes unique to media art. Conservation of such works necessitates a background in technologies worlds apart from the studio art skills of the traditionally trained art conservator.
To meet these and other needs, the conservation lab will be adding a post-graduate conservation fellow in “time-based” artwork. Yet, it is likely that artists will continue to use “traditional” materials, so the goal for the future is to continually expand awareness and technical abilities. As this process continues to unfold, the conservation staff will be challenged to respond to the often-tenuous physicality of the newest art, even as it is being made.
Since its beginning, the Hirshhorn Museum has been involved with living artists—a legacy of founder Joseph Hirshhorn and his personal involvement with the creators of the works he so enthusiastically collected. The Conservation Lab, in existence since the Museum opened in 1974, reflects that dynamic. Of course, work from any era in the Museum’s holdings are attended to by the Lab, but it is the interaction between conservators and still-producing artists that makes conservation related activities here different from more traditional art museums.
The role of a Conservation Lab, no matter what the area of focus, is to preserve and restore the works of art in the collection. Preservation, in the broadest sense, includes monitoring and maintaining proper environmental standards, overseeing handling, packing, and installation, and studying and researching the materials and techniques of their creation, both as information to direct possible treatments and to add to the body of knowledge about the artist who made them. Restoration is the process of intervening in the work of art so that it continues to reflect the artist’s intention, acknowledging the passage of time and expected and inevitable changes in appearance given the materials used.
An artist’s attitude toward conservation of their work can sometimes be determined through documentation and archival photographs. Another method for determining artistic intent is through technical analysis, which often reveals working methods and materials not easily seen through normal viewing. With living and recent artists, interviews can be enormously useful, and in some cases conservators actually work with the artist on specific pieces, in effect “researching” at the moment the work is being made.
CONSERVATION OPPORTUNITIES AND RESOURCES
AATA: Abstracts of International Conservation Literature – Getty and International Institute for Conservation for Historic and Artistic Works (IIC) - AATA Online is a comprehensive database of over 100,000 abstracts of literature related to the preservation and conservation of material cultural heritage.
American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) - AIC is the national membership organization of conservation professionals. Its members include conservators, educators, scientists, students, archivists, art historians, and other conservation enthusiasts in over twenty countries around the world.
AMIEN: Art Materials Information and Education Network - AMIEN is a resource site providing the most comprehensive, up-to-date, accurate, and unbiased factual information about artists’ materials.
Art Babble – The Indianapolis Museum of Art - For the past three years, the IMA has been a museum leader in video production, focusing much of their new media efforts on documenting the work of contemporary artists, talks from leading scholars and activists, documentary productions and exhibition-focused interpretive content. With the launch of ArtBabble, the Indianapolis Museum of Art will include a selection of their videos from YouTube and iTunes U, including the award winning series, Roman Art from the Louvre webisodes. In addition to these videos, the IMA will also debut new content, including a major documentary on artist, architect and environmentalist, Maya Lin.
BCIN: the Bibliographic Database of the Conservation Information Network - Available online since 1987, BCIN is a trusted resource for professionals, museums and other heritage organizations. It now contains nearly 200 000 citations, including the first 34 volumes of the Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts (AATA), published between 1955 and 1997.
CAMEO: Conservation and Art Material Encyclopedia Online – MFA, Boston - CAMEO is a searchable information center developed by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The MATERIALS database contains chemical, physical, visual, and analytical information on over 10,000 historic and contemporary materials used in the production and conservation of artistic, architectural, archaeological, and anthropological materials.
CCI: Canadian Conservation Institute – Canadian Conservation Institute supports the heritage community in preserving Canada’s heritage collections. The site provides free PDFs on the care of many cultural items. They also offer a 3D tour that takes you through a virtual home and lets you select certain objects and family heirlooms to learn how to care for them.
GCI: Getty Conservation Institute - The Getty Conservation Institute works internationally to advance conservation practice in the visual arts—broadly interpreted to include objects, collections, architecture, and sites. The Institute serves the conservation community through scientific research, education and training, model field projects, and the dissemination of the results of both its own work and the work of others in the field.
Heritage Preservation - Heritage Preservation helps museums, libraries, and individuals with the best preservation advice from professional conservators through our series of Caring books. The Conservation Assessment Program helps small and mid-sized museums get the advice of professional conservators for their collections and historic buildings. The Heritage Health Index survey is the first attempt to paint a national picture of the state of collections in all kinds of institutions—museums, libraries, archives, historical societies, and scientific organizations. Save Outdoor Sculpture! and Rescue Public Murals help communities discover and protect their local cultural icons.
ICA: Intermuseum Conservation Association - ICA is the oldest not-for-profit regional conservation center in the United States, dedicated to the preservation of works of art and objects of cultural significance. The ICA provides professional, high quality, and cost-effective services to collecting institutions, corporations, government agencies, and the general public.
ICCROM: International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property - ICCROM is an intergovernmental organization (IGO) dedicated to the conservation of cultural heritage. It exists to serve the international community as represented by its Member States, which currently number 129.
ICOM-CC: International Council of Museums-Committee for Conservation - ICOM-CC is the largest of the International Committees of ICOM (International Council of Museums) with over 1800 members worldwide from every branch of the museum and conservation profession. ICOM-CC aims to promote the investigation, analysis and conservation of culturally and historically significant works and to further the goals of the conservation profession.
ICON: The Institute for Conservation – Icon’s membership embraces the wider conservation community, incorporating not only professional conservators in all disciplines, but all others who share a commitment to improving understanding of and access to our cultural heritage.
IIC: International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works - IIC is an independent international organisation supported by individual and institutional members. It serves as a forum for communication among professionals with responsibility for the preservation of cultural heritage. It advances knowledge, practice and standards for the conservation of historic and artistic works through its publications and conferences. It promotes professional excellence and public awareness through its awards and scholarships.
INCCA: International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art -INCCA is a network of professionals connected to the conservation of modern and contemporary art. Conservators, curators, scientists, registrars, archivists, art historians and researchers are among its members. Members allow access to each others unpublished information (artist interviews, condition reports, installation instructions etc) through the INCCA Database for Artists’ Archives.
JAIC: Journal of the American Institute for Conservation - In 1998, the AIC Board decided to make this unique resource available via the world wide web, both to preserve the data contained in the JAIC, and to increase its availability by allowing the files to be publicly accessed. It was decided to only include issues more than three years old, thus retaining the members-only benefit of recently printed editions. This website, which went online in April, 2001, is the result. Subsequent issues of the JAIC, as well as other AIC publications, will be periodically added to further develop this valuable resource.
Lunder Conservation Center - At the Lunder Conservation Center, visitors have the unique opportunity to see conservators at work in five different laboratories and studios. The Center features floor-to-ceiling glass walls that allow the public to view all aspects of conservation work— work that is traditionally done behind the scenes at other museums and conservation centers. Interactive kiosks and special displays make it easy for visitors to learn about the importance of conservation and show how to take an active role in caring for public art and monuments, as well as how to care for personal treasures at home. Their site offers videos from their media wall and interactive kiosks, and provides information on public programs and outreach activities at the center.
NECA: New England Conservation Association - The New England Conservation Association is a collegial group of individuals from the New England region who are interested in all aspects of art conservation. NECA hosts an annual series of interesting and topical meetings where members can keep up-to-date on the latest developments in conservation, enjoy refreshments with friends and colleagues, and see behind the scenes in area labs and studios. Annual workshops are organized to provide hands-on opportunities for specialized interests with a rotating subject matter.
RAP: Regional Alliance for Preservation - RAP is a national network of nonprofit organizations with expertise in the field of conservation and preservation. Through coordinated outreach activities, educational programs, and publications, RAP organizations foster awareness about preserving our cultural heritage. RAP members present training programs, provide conservation and preservation services, create publications to assist institutions in caring for their collections, and provide free technical advice to collecting institutions across the country.
Restoration Online: Minneapolis Institute of Art - This is a page in the MIA’s website. Some of the great features of this page are: visual daily logs of the paintings restoration process, a glossary of conservation terms, and a list of frequently asked questions about paintings conservation.
SOWF: Society of Winterthur Fellows – The Society of Winterthur Fellows is a membership organization open to alumni of the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, and the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. Its mission is to: Contribute to the education of current fellows through mentoring and the sponsorship of programs, and to enhance the educational experience by means of financial contributions; Foster professional development and collegial opportunities for the alumni through programs and events on and off campus; Inform others about the importance and value of these graduate programs; and Assist the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library in its overall mission.
WCG: Washington Conservation Guild - The Washington Conservation Guild (WCG) is a nonprofit organization for professional conservators, students, and others interested in the conservation and preservation of art and historic materials. WCG was founded in 1967 to promote the increase and exchange of conservation knowledge
ARTISTS + ART + AUDIENCE
The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is a leading voice for contemporary art and culture and provides a national platform for the art and artists of our time. We seek to share the transformative power of modern and contemporary art with audiences at all levels of awareness and understanding by creating meaningful, personal experiences in which art, artists, audiences and ideas converge. We enhance public understanding and appreciation of contemporary art through acquisition, exhibitions, education and public programs, conservation, and research.
Click here to explore the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden website.
Posted on Monday, June 23rd 2014, by Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden