Just because an artwork is in a museum, doesn’t mean it is immune to damage. Remember when Picasso’s Nude in Front of a Garden was slashed with a knife in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art? Even the lightest of touches from a visitor can leave seemingly invisible—but damaging—traces of oil on a painting or sculpture. So the museum’s Collections Department arranged for O‘ahu’s three art conservation rock stars to give museum docents a primer on what they do, and the ins and outs of art safety and conservation at the museum last week. Part of curator Theresa Papanikolas and the Collections Department’s ongoing project to promote art safety, the session was designed to arm docents with the knowledge they need to in turn educate visitors about art safety—and why it’s not OK to touch the art—with gentle, informed authority.
Seth Irwin, paper conservator at the University of Hawai‘i Library System, works with unbound works on paper, such as maps, government documents and prints. He kicked off the session with a presentation on conservation, which is explained as two goals: first, to prevent things from getting damaged, and second, if the things are damaged, to fix them. He offered detailed tips on how to handle works on paper, such as to never lift an edge with your fingernail.
The group moved on to the galleries, where Larry Pace, who with his wife Rie runs Pace Art Conservation, told a story about the museum’s Hans Hofmann painting Fragrance. About 15 years ago, a security officer spotted something on the work—someone had stuck a partially chewed caramel on it. The candy blended right in with the thick dabs of paint. The museum called Larry and Rie to remove it.
Next Larry went to the Diego Rivera painting, and said that the custom-made putty-and-wood frame “is as important as the painting.” He pointed to a little white patch on the frame where the paint is flaking off as well as an almost invisible scratch on the canvas. He asked docents to report anything they might notice—like these two blemishes, as they give tours. Their vigilance can be a big help to the conservation of museum works.
Next up was conservator Thor Minnick, who has worked with the museum for more than 40 years and is currently conserving the wood sculpture of St. John the Evangelist that is normally found in the Renaissance Gallery. He shared a story about a time a child wrote “Kimo” in ballpoint pen on a work. The docents gasped. Loudly.
A lively conversation on polite, gentle ways to prevent guests from getting too close to art ensued. Docent Susan Palmore shared how she tells kids on student tours to make a “duck back”—with their hands clasped behind their backs, to ward off the temptation to touch.
Theresa noted that she and docents stand closely to art when she gives a tour, but that is because “we’re aware of our proximity, are comfortable with the art, and are careful to not touch it—but it sends a mixed message to visitors. Let’s make a pact that we’ll stand at a safe distance when giving tours.” The docents agreed this was a smart move.