The Art of Conservation and Preventive Maintenance

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When delving into the evaluation of artworks, a dual consideration must be afforded to ascertain their intrinsic value. The first facet involves an examination of their historical and cultural context, while the second hinges on the preservation condition inherent to each piece.

In the waning years of the 20th century, Gary Thomson underscored the paramount significance of environmental control in collections, articulating that:

“A misguided restorer has the potential to dismantle an object within a month. An inept conservator, in turn, holds the power to dismantle an entire collection over the course of a year.”

Artworks, by their very nature, are susceptible to the inexorable march of deterioration, perpetuated by physical, biological, and human influences. In this milieu, preventive conservation assumes a pivotal role, deploying indirect measures to impede the ravages of time and avert damage. This involves a spectrum of judicious actions encompassing correct handling, meticulous transport, strategic storage, and mindful exhibition practices—all converging to establish and maintain optimal conditions for the preservation of our cultural heritage.

Appropriate lighting

Lighting has the power to cause permanent damage to artworks, since it triggers and accelerates photochemical reactions that contribute to the deterioration of objects, resulting in discolouration and accelerated ageing. Therefore, controlling illuminance levels and the radiation emitted by the light source is one of the main concerns for preserving the integrity of an artwork.

As for the radiation emitted by light sources, both natural and artificial, we can identify three types: visible rays, which we can perceive with our eyes, ultraviolet radiation (UV) and infrared radiation (IR).

Sunlight contains all three types of radiation, which makes it harmful to artworks. Infrared rays are responsible for heat transmission and help accelerate degradation processes by increasing the surface temperature. UV radiation is the most energetic and therefore the most destructive.

The use of UV-protected glass in frames is an effective measure to minimise the damage caused by exposure to light in photographs, works on paper, etc. This material acts as a barrier against the sun’s harmful rays because it has three optimised characteristics: absorption, transmission and reflection.

In places such as exhibitions or rooms with many artworks, it is recommended to install colourless UV protection film on the windows. This measure reduces ultraviolet radiation by 99%, allows for better light control and guarantees thermal optimisation, providing better insulation during the winter and significantly reducing solar heat in the summer.

The use of low-intensity LED lighting is also an effective method for eliminating the rays that damage artworks. This technology has been widely adopted in museums and art galleries, representing a revolution in the field of art conservation due to the absence of UV and IR rays.

Choosing the materials that will complement the artwork

In tandem with the aforementioned UV glass, there are other alternatives that isolate the artworks from their environment, by means of frames, display cases and hermetic enclosures, which offer long-term protection against adverse agents. When curating materials for your artwork, aesthetic appeal should not overshadow the paramount consideration of protective efficacy. It is advisable to select pieces made from acid-free materials, as certain acidic materials can cause damage such as discolouration and stains. In addition, these items play an important role in physically protecting the work from dust, dirt and minor impacts. They act as a physical barrier between the artwork and the outside environment, reducing the risk of damage from unwanted elements.

Exhibition environment

Selecting the right location for displaying artworks demands thoughtful consideration. Steering clear of high-humidity zones, such as bathrooms and basements, is imperative, as moisture fosters the growth of fungi and accelerates the piece’s deterioration. Likewise, caution is advised against showcasing artworks in kitchens, given the potential exposure to grease, heightened temperatures, and the accumulation of smoke.

Furthermore, steering clear of spaces prone to sea spray is prudent. This mist, laden with saltwater vapor, settles on the artwork’s surface, fostering oxidation over time.

For the maintenance of optimal humidity levels conducive to artwork preservation, the judicious use of electronic dehumidifiers is recommended when needed. These devices prove instrumental in stabilizing humidity levels within the range of 50% to 60%, safeguarding artworks from the perils of environmental excesses.

Careful handling

When handling an artwork, make sure you wash your hands before handling the piece and wear clean cotton gloves. These precautionary measures serve a dual purpose: averting the transfer of dirt, natural oils, and fingerprints to the artwork’s surface while shielding it from potential harm induced by the skin’s inherent acidity.
When holding the artwork, it is recommended to avoid direct contact with the exposed area. Choose to hold it by the sides or at the back of the frame, thus minimising the risk of accidental damage, such as scratches on the surface.

Cleaning the artwork

Safeguarding the longevity of your artwork necessitates the adoption of a consistent and gentle cleaning regimen, aimed at delicately eliminating the accrued dust on its surface. Employing a soft, fine-bristled, dry brush is paramount for this task, with meticulous adherence to the artist’s or gallery’s provided instructions. Caution should be exercised against the use of chemicals or solvents unless one possesses specialized knowledge, as their application can inflict irreversible damage or even strip away integral elements of the work.

The cleaning process for an artwork should not be underestimated, underscoring the importance of engaging professional conservators and restorers. Entrusting the cleaning task to individuals lacking technical expertise, utilizing improper techniques or products, poses the risk of irreversible harm. Consequently, seeking the proficiency of qualified professionals becomes indispensable for ensuring the proper and meticulous preservation of artistic treasures.

Preventive monitoring

In addition to the importance of physical sanitisation, the regular implementation of preventive monitoring plays a crucial role in preventing unwanted interventions in the future. This practice acts as an alert system, allowing for the detection of alterations such as holes, pest eggs and other elements that could attract these invaders. In the event of signs of contamination or pest attack on an artwork, it is essential to isolate the piece immediately and seek out a specialised professional to carry out the appropriate treatment.

Conclusion

By adopting these conservation practices, you will be protecting your artwork and ensuring that its integrity is preserved for future generations. Remember that each work is unique and may have specific needs, so when purchasing an artwork, ask the artist or gallerist about the materials and how to keep the work intact.

By Into.Gallery | October 2023

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