18 November 2009

Art preservation: a cautionary tale

image from the Australian government
preservation projects: mold and mildew

I was just visiting Donna Watson's blog and saw the wonderful objects and materials she brought back from her recent trip to Japan. Several people mentioned that she should scan the more fragile items rather than handling them.

This raises some key issues we need to be aware of, especially in this digital age where now we are dealing with not only ephemera, but also with "cyber-ephemera," for lack of a better phrase.

In my profession we are trained about preservation of historical objects (monographs, maps, photographs, diaries, letters, scrapbooks, etc.), and the same practices can apply to our creative works today. Many of us already know about acid-free papers, not to use plain tape, etc. Did you also know that --

> hand lotion can ruin fragile papers? The oils and fragrances that rub off on these delicate materials can destroy them over time. Wear archival gloves (those simple white cotton gloves that we see at quilt exhibits) to protect your materials.

> archival storage boxes are readily available online or at some art stores. They are museum-quality boxes that are acid-free and lignon-free. Why bother? Direct or bright light can adversely affect papers, textiles and even artwork on canvas. If your artwork is not on display, why not store them in these boxes and prolong their lifespan.

> extreme swings in heat and humidity can destroy. I had a friend whose hand-crafted journals became mildewed because they were stored on a wood shelf in her studio (below ground level). The same is true of extreme heat and dryness, which can cause materials to become brittle and literally break apart. A basic ventilator/air-conditioner can help regulate the environment and prevent that occurring.

> and finally on the "cyber" front -- not only should we all be making back-up CDs of our work and images, but also negatives. Someday the technology may change and suddenly the CD format may not migrate to the new platform -- remember those old 8-track tapes and LP turntables? Many people throw older equipment away, but often these are the only machines that can run those formats. With negatives, a trained photographer/developer would be able to retrieve those images regardless of any changes in automation.

Some tips are available online at the Northeast Documentation Conservation Center in Massachusetts, and there are several conservations centers around the country, including the excellent Smithsonian site.

I hope I haven't sounded too officious on this, but it does bear thinking about.

I will be back another day soon with happier topics!


The Artist Within Us said...

I feel you have opened the Pandora's Box not only on preservation and conservation.

The concerns I have is not only conservation but also preservation as ephemeral material is being snapped up and cut up for collages, used in paintings and encaustics.

I see books being destroyed for the altered book art, an area of art I love and so find myself on the fence, asking when is it all right to destroy something in order to create art.

I have come to the conclusion that when ever possible to retain the original item as is and to scan it for reproduction before it is being used.

This of course is not always possible because the original item has certain 'aged qualities' that cannot be reproduced.

I just with Somerset Publications with over 20 different magazine publications would make an effort to inform its readers that preserving history is just as important as using it to create new artwork.

As for conservation, I am constantly thinking about it and after a meeting last night with Gamblin paints, realize that as an artist we need to look at conservation not from an artists perspective, but from a chemists point of view and then build our idea into a work of art.

Sorry for my 'soap box' speech here, but since my work no longer is just using oil and canvas but multi-medium, I take conservation very seriously and I cannot hope that enough other artist do the same when they create they art work.

I thank you for your post as we need to get the word out . . .

Wishing you a wonderful week,

The Artist Within Us said...

I failed to mention that an excellent source on conservation of art is with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and one can sign up for their newsletter.

They also offer a newsletter designed for K-12 teachers and other resources.

I recommend checking out the Getty Museum at: http://www.getty.edu/.


Laura J. Wellner (author pseudonym Laura J. W. Ryan) said...

Amen...it's what I deal with every day at my day job as a registrar at the art collection...it's something that isn't taught in art school and all too often I see contemporary art being made with a sense of it being temporary, or collectors of artwork who don't take the best of care of their work, which becomes the museum registrar's nightmare when the donated artwork arrives in their care and it's a pile of potential conservation problems and storage issues. I've received artwork with mildew, layers of dust, fly poo, and once bird feathers stuck to a painting surface (and the donor assured me that the painting left his storage facility in perfect condition, must be they wrapped the painting with the bird inside? But I found no bird)... Oy vey...indeed, a cautionary tale...

The Artist Within Us said...

I love your story Laura . . .

Thank you for sharing,

layers said...

Oh dear, I seemed to have opened up a pandora's box when I posted the old books and papers I found at Kyoto's flea markets. I read your comment on my post and just read all your great information on preservation. I had thought I would do a post on this myself as it does seem an interesting topic.

Kelly M. said...

I guess I did strike a nerve -- but a good one! O.k. -- confession time. I am a library director (I feel like Clark Kent) and I can assure you, Egmont, that there are some books (mostly popular bestsellers from 20-30 years ago) that jam up every library in the country. Our used book sale rooms spill over with these materials. We need to withdraw them for badly needed space. Also, once stamped with library information (barcodes, spine labels and such), they are not "collectibles" in any sense of the word. As long as folks use these types of books to alter, it is not a bad a thing. But there are so many other issues, as Laura writes about, too (love the feathers!) --

Perhaps a follow-up piece is called for. And thank you for the link to the Getty -- excellent! I think I'll put some of these preservation/conservation links on the side panel.

Four Seasons in a Life said...

I am glad to have returned to see your follow up remark Kelly. I guess a library was not on my radar screen and maybe I should look into it. I normally obtain my old books from used books stores or junk shops.
I have come across some wonderful books in not so good of a condition, but in the end I started reading the authors words. I guess it is that kind off loss since books written 40 or 50 years about the 30's and 40's have such a different language about them that modern books seem to be lacking.