Caring for Art

Keeping the Collection “Young”

Have you ever visited the Museum and wondered how a 500-year-old work of art could look so good? That’s easy—it’s all about proper care. The Museum provides a multi-faceted approach to caring for the art. In the previous article we discussed the importance of providing a stable temperature and relative humidity. Another important way we care for the collection is to make certain that it is exposed to only safe and archival materials.

Some works of art, such as textiles and works on paper, are just too fragile to be on display most of the time, as exposure to light will cause permanent fading. In order to prolong their lives, these light-sensitive works of art are shown for very short periods of time, usually about three months, and then they are returned to the darkness of art storage until they’re shown again. While in storage, works of art are supported by an array of very specialized archival materials, all designed to preserve and extend the life of the art. Acid free tissue is a staple for many of the collections, used for everything from padding out creases on historic clothing to providing a comfy cushion for delicate glass and ceramic objects to interleaving the quilts. It is used routinely to cover light-sensitive material, so damage doesn’t occur when located in a bright collection processing work area. Acid free mat board is another mainstay for us, used for matting our works on paper, with this matting and framing done in house by carefully trained museum preparators (art handlers). Volara, an archival padding material, has many applications in the gallery and storage. Ethafoam, another cushioning material, is used for everything from lining storage shelves to lining crates and is even customcarved to serve as supporting devices such as hat mounts and crate cushions. Tyvek, developed for and commonly used in the construction industry, linesour crates, enabling us to restrict the fluctuations in relative humidity when art is on the road. These are but a few of the products and materials we use every day when caring for the collection.

Exposure to light is a critical concern in the Museum environment. Quantity of light and types of light sources are closely monitored to ensure that we’re properly displaying the art while at the same time making certain to severely limit light’s damaging effects. Our light bulbs have ultraviolet (UV) coatings on the face, then a filter is placed on the bulb to further reduce UV exposure and, finally, a rheostat is manually adjusted to control the brightness of the light fixture. For the works of art glazed with Plexi-glass, there is additional protection built into a UV coating on the surface. Careful measurements are constantly made with foot-candle and UV meters to ensure we are within carefully prescribed ranges. Even the Museum’s exterior windows have a UV coating, and light from the windows is periodically measured, too, to ensure the coating’s integrity.

The Museum’s care of the collection even extends to carefully selecting the safest paint for the walls and safest fabric in the display cases, noting that an odor usually indicates “off-gassing,” an emission of harmful substances that could damage the collection. We select low VOC latex paint, allow it to cure for an extended period, and we use conservator-vetted fabrics free of dye and sizing to line our casework. The wood used to construct the display cases must be a high-grade wood such as birch and be formaldehyde-free.

In future articles, we’ll delve more deeply into how specific types of art are stored and displayed at the Museum, and hopefully you’ll be able to apply some of these principles to proper management of your personal collections.