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Art Behind the Scenes

We’re Keeping the Lights On for You (but only figuratively speaking)

As we wait to welcome you back to the Museum, work continues behind the scenes. In the conservation department, we prepare for many different disaster scenarios that might potentially strike our collection. Fire, flood, insect infestations, mold, and even terrorism are all covered in the Museum’s Emergency Preparedness Plan; COVID-19 and Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order are not. Having the Museum closed to the public for an extended period presented us with an entirely new set of challenges.

Here at the Museum, controlling the environment within the buildings and caring for the art is an ongoing, essential responsibility. Among the measures that we’ve taken to ensure the art is ready when we reopen is to leave the lights off! (Well, when we’re not working, of course.)

The building is eerily quiet, but Duane Hanson’s “Janitor” keeps continual watch over the Museum.

LEFT: Duane Hanson (American, 1925–1996), “Janitor,” 1973. Polyester, fiberglass, and mixed-media. 65 1/2 × 28 × 22 in. (166.37 × 71.12 × 55.88 cm). Gift of Friends of Art, M1973.91. RIGHT: Chuck Close (American, b. 1940), “Nancy,” 1968. Acrylic on canvas. 108 3/8 × 82 1/4 in. (275.27 × 208.92 cm). Gift of Herbert H. Kohl Charities, Inc., M1983.207.

Temperature and Humidity:

Welcome to conservation 101! Maintaining a stable temperature and humidity in the galleries and storage areas is critical to preventing damage to the works of art in the collection. Fluctuations in the Museum environment lead to expansion and contraction of the various materials that make up the artwork. Paint can lift from canvas, cracks can form in wooden sculptures, and furniture can warp. Also mold can easily proliferate during periods of high humidity.

  • Temperatures between 70–72℉ and humidity readings between 40–50% are ideal for both artwork and humans! 
Assistant Paper Conservator Chris Niver is using a thermohygrometer to keep tabs on the Museum environment.

Dust: 

If left uncontrolled, dust can have a detrimental effect on artwork, and it just plain looks bad. Dust is abrasive, can cause staining, and often attracts insects. Dusting is also the best time for us to lay eyes on each and every piece of art in the collection to monitor for damage or evolving condition issues. 

  • Conservation staff are dusting and monitoring the collection every week while the building is closed.
This is me and the dusting cart reflected in the mirror of George Mann Niedecken’s “Vanity from the Emma U. Demmer Residence.” The marks on the mirror are not drips but areas where the silvering has delaminated from age. We’re definitely not ready for our close-up!

Light and Water:

If you’ve ever displayed a family photo near a window, you might have noticed how the image faded over time. This process is called “photochemical deterioration,” and it happens in varying degrees to almost all artwork; it can result in permanent fading and the work becoming brittle. And I’m certain the result of leaving pools of stagnating water in a closed building are fairly obvious to everyone.

  • We’re leaving the lights off in the galleries and storage rooms to protect the collection, and some fragile artworks have been covered until we’re open again.
  • The trickle and splash of water can no longer be heard from Robert Gober’s mysterious sculpture.
The tide has gone out on Robert Gober’s pool—for now.

Robert Gober (American, b. 1954), “Untitled” and “Untitled” (detail), 1997. Mixed media, 122 1/2 × 104 × 75 in. (311.15 × 264.16 × 190.5 cm). Gift of the Contemporary Art Society, with additional funds from Donna and Donald Baumgartner, Terry A. Hueneke, Marianne and Sheldon B. Lubar, James and Joanne Murphy, Bud and Sue Selig, and Lynde B. Uihlein, M1999.48.

Insects:

Carpet beetles, webbing clothes moths, and silverfish are just a few of the insects that can cause catastrophic damage to museum collections. 

  • Conservation is checking sticky traps located throughout the Museum during the building closure. These traps help quantify the types and numbers of bugs we have in the exhibition and storage spaces so we can take immediate action if the artwork is in danger. Thanks to a diligent pest-inspection program, we don’t have damage in our collection like the image shown below!
The damage to this hat is from moth larvae eating the wool fabric covering of the cap. Notice how they’re not interested in the raffia structure of the hat brim or even the cotton stitching.
This is one of the many blunder traps we are using to monitor the galleries and storage areas for insect infestations—they check in, but they don’t check out!

The conservation department will continue to work behind the scenes to care for the collection well after this crisis is over. We look forward to that day, and to welcoming you back. 

Terri White, as associate conservator, has cared for the Museum’s diverse collection for nearly three decades. She specializes in objects, including folk art and sculpture, and as one of the few people on staff who gets to touch the artwork, she attests that “yeah, it’s really, really cool.”

3 replies on “We’re Keeping the Lights On for You (but only figuratively speaking)”

Terri, Thank you for a very informative blog post. We take so much for granted because it is out of view. I am gld you are insuring the safe keeping of the art.

The conservator info is soooo interesting! I think I want to be one in my next life!

Thank you for a short and interesting article. I love to hear about art conservation.

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