How Conservators Protect Objects against Sweat, Floor Paint, and Weather
Abrech Gumlich (Conservator, Objects) discusses the factors conservators guarded against in the exhibition Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint.
Why do we preserve visual culture, and what are we protecting it from when we preserve it? That’s the question that conservators are often asked. Objects in a museum collection are not only worth money, but they also have a cultural, historical, and social significance, which museums want to preserve for future generations to learn from, be inspired by, and enjoy.
There are many factors that can cause degradation, even in settings as carefully engineered as a museum exhibition, from the sweat on our fingers to the light shining onto an object. Below are some of the key dangers that conservators protect against.
Touching an object without gloves, even just briefly with the tip of your finger, has consequences. It means that the residue of your finger’s sweat leaves a mark—not necessarily visible the moment that you touch it, but over the course of the coming years, each finger that touches a sensitive object will leave a small amount of invisible residue, potentially etching an irreversible stain into the surface. As a result, future generations may not be able to enjoy the defaced object.
That’s why visitors should not touch objects on display, and even museum staff don’t touch our objects without gloves. Conservators used to wear trademark white cotton gloves, but cotton absorbs and potentially transmits sweat, so nowadays we prefer to use vinyl medical gloves, a material allowing safer handling of heavy or slippery objects while also preventing sweat from seeping through.
In Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint, there are no traditional pedestals with protective Plexiglas bonnets, which usually protect sensitive objects from being touched. So how do we assure that visitors understand the difference between the collection items on display that they cannot touch, versus an item such as Danh Vo’s Untitled (Structure for Akari PL2)—a centrally placed, large wooden pavilion—where they are invited to sit and relax? Communicating this difference is a challenging task.
In this case, we have, for example, added bilingual signs right outside the pavilion that read in Chinese and English, ‘You are welcome to sit inside. Please note that works on display should not be touched.’ Noguchi’s Rudder Table Dining Suite near the pavilion, with rare examples of artistically designed stools and a table, cannot be touched, so we have printed on the floor, ‘Please do not touch’ in two languages. This dining suite is particularly attractive to visitors who want to sit, so in this case we understood that we also had to add stanchions, which is a significant compromise for many curators because they don’t want to keep the public away.
Many of our conservation measures are considered preventive measures preventing collections items from tarnishing, corroding, or breaking in the first place. If something actually breaks, we start the process of remedial conservation and restoration to put things back together. This is the type of work that most people think conservators or restorers do all day long, but we actually try to avoid it, because we prefer to have any object in its original state for best interpretation in the future.
Some preventative measures to reduce the risk of breakage potentially caused by visitor interaction deal with making people aware of a given object being a museum item on display. Communicating that they can’t touch or sit on them asks visitors to consider that collection items are supposed to be around for a very long time—for our children’s children to enjoy. Isamu Noguchi’s Bamboo Basket Chair, for example, is very inviting to sit on. We discussed with the curatorial team how we could display this chair so that the public understands the difference between the central pavilion (can sit!), and this object (cannot sit!). The idea that Danh Vo came up with was to put it on a circular marble riser that not only makes it clear that it is an object to be taken care of, but also increases its artistic aura.
Another example is Noguchi’s sculpture Childhood, which is placed on the floor. It’s a round grey granite stone, on a grey floor, so the contrast is not very high. We were worried people would trip over it, potentially hurting themselves or chipping the object. So the curatorial team decided to place the object in the very far corner of the room. There would be no danger of people tripping over it, because people don’t walk into the far end corner.
In both cases, the particular placement of the object can be considered a preventive measure.
None of the objects in the exhibition actually touch the floor. That’s because even the paint of the floor, similar to the sweat of people’s fingers, can chemically interact with the actual object and degrade it.
For example, the Rudder Table Dining Suite rests on very small isolating foam disks, right under the legs. The sculptures have very thin sheets of clear protective plastic underneath to isolate them from the paint of the floor. It’s a very thin transparent sheet called Mylar—an inert plastic, meaning it’s not chemically reacting with the actual object.
The sculpture Lady Mirror, very close to the window, rests on thin insert foam serving as an isolating layer, protecting the sculpture from floor paint. In addition, the 5mm foam layer keeps the sculpture from slipping and tipping on the slightly uneven floor. The black Volara foam is cut slightly smaller than the sculpture’s base so that it is not visible.
Bright sunlight from outside is a serious threat to light-sensitive collection materials. Museums have a number of ways to reduce harmful daylight, which is why many museum galleries don’t have windows in the first place. If windows exist and sensitive objects, like paintings, works on paper, and plastics are displayed, daylight can be blocked out entirely by adhering black opaque foil to the window pane, or partially reduced by adding diffusing shades.
In this case, it was important to Danh Vo for the skyline of Hong Kong to be seen on the other side of Victoria Harbour, so the compromise we came up with was to cover the large window front with two foils of protective film. The first dark layer is stuck to the outside of the windows to reduce the overall light levels, like huge protective sunglasses. A second layer covering the inside filters out the harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. On an artistic level, Danh Vo has also added chosen light linen curtains to obtain the overall living room, study-like atmosphere.
Despite the variety of measures meant to reduce light levels, in this case an abundance of light was still flooding the floor in the morning hours every day. To ensure the safety and longevity of the objects, only sturdy stone and metal objects were placed near the windows.
We could not have chosen, for example, the lightly coloured plastic sculpture, Untitled, to sit by the window. Most plastics are prone to react to the environment and particularly light. That’s why this delicate sculpture was placed on one of the larger plinths, making sure that people don’t touch it, and far from the window. In fact, there is not even a bright spotlight illuminating this object.
A big puzzle that we have to solve is that we obviously need light to see and appreciate the objects on display! But we don’t necessarily need daylight, nor do we want bright, heat-generating spotlights ‘baking’ the works. Luckily, today’s technology allows us to artificially obtain white light from cool light sources. In addition, we can filter out the harmful UV component of light, or dim down light levels according to the sensitivity of the objects.
This is the first M+ Pavilion exhibition with a significant amount of works outside, which is a unique situation. Hong Kong weather and environmental conditions are a challenge for conservators. The high level of humidity can and will cause mold to grow on many organic materials—as we all know from home. Fluctuations in environmental conditions can cause changes in dimension, as materials like wood can expand, contract, and eventually crack irreversibly. In addition, the air around Hong Kong is rather polluted, and the construction site is currently located right next to the M+ Pavilion, so there’s a lot of corrosive dust in the air. All those factors play a role in object degradation.
Noguchi’s Cloud Mountain sculpture was placed outside for the duration of this exhibition. While it is made of galvanised steel, suited for the outdoors, we still come in every week to check for the formation of any corrosion, wiping it down with microfiber cloth and distilled water, just to get rid of the surface grime and dirt.
The red Play Sculpture, a wonderfully designed creation by Noguchi, is a new production, and it is there for people to enjoy and play with. Some scratches and dings have occurred, and that is part of the natural life cycle of this item. It is considered to be part of the natural wear and tear that we were aware would be happening. Besides cleaning it every week throughout the show, we will be evaluating if any filling or red inpainting need to be made to the losses and scratches at the end of the exhibition.
This article was originally published on M+ Stories to coincide with the exhibition Noguchi for Danh Vo: Counterpoint. All photos: M+, Hong Kong (unless otherwise indicated).
Albrecht Gumlich is Conservator, Objects at M+.