“Ask A Conservator” Gallery Feature at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art in St. Louis

The Museum of Contemporary Religious Art at Saint Louis University has had a unique opportunity to put conservation on display in its galleries while a large, newly acquired artwork is undergoing treatment before installation. Informational panels posted throughout the gallery shed some light on the process, such as the fact that the team is using human saliva to clean some surfaces, but curious visitors are encouraged to interact by posting questions on a message board about the project, conservation, and the museum.

Check out the treatment process and gallery conservation experience of Michael Tracy’s Cruz to Bishop Oscar Romero, Martyr of El Salvador, featured in this article: https://www.slu.edu/news/2018/january/mocra-visible-conservation.php

Ask A Conservator

Ask A Conservator panel near the Visible Conservation gallery exhibit/conservation treatment at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, Saint Louis University.

Here are a selection of the questions and answers by Katherine Langdon of Langdon Art Conservation, LLC, the objects conservator heading this treatment.

What happens if a piece falls off?

We always save fragments, no matter how small! Often they can be reattached with aappropriate adhesive, but sometimes they are valuable as samples for chemical analysis. We save them in labeled bags or vials and store them where they can be found when needed.

Do the digestive enzymes in saliva affect the artwork aall?

They can, so you always have to be aware of the type of material you are working on and its chemical sensitivities. Those enzymes are precisely why we use saliva– they’re great for breaking down surface grime. Most surfaces that can be safely cleaned with water-based solutions are also able to be cleaned with saliva, and we always make sure to clean off the saliva once it has done its job.

Is there a product you can buy instead of using human saliva?

Yes, there are commercially available “enzymatic cleaning solutions” that mimic the effect of saliva– but if you need a small quantity, human saliva is easy to acquire and free!

How many stars are in the sky and where do they go during the day?

I’m sorry, you posted on the wrong board– go Ask aAstronomer!

How do you clean the fabric parts?

The textiles on this object cannot be detached and washed– and it turns out that some of them are sensitive to liquid and would stain! So we only use dry cleaning methods (not solvent cleaning like at the “dry cleaner”)– in this case, we carefully (and sometimes indirectly) vacuum the surface to remove loose dust and debris, and then use dry cosmetic sponges to lift up the grime.

Are all paints the same or do they have to be treated different ways?

There are so many different kinds of paint! A paint is essentially pigment (the color) dispersed into a binder or medium such as linseed oil, casein, acrylic resin, or other material, which is mixed with other chemicals to give it the desired working properties, and this can vary between colors and brands even of the same type of paint. So while they’re all “paints”, they can be chemically very different. Conservators do small cleaning tests on all the different paints and materials they want to clean, every time, to make sure that the cleaning methods used are appropriate for that piece of art.

It seems, to me, that the work you do is, in itself, aartform. Do you think conservators recognize themselves aartists?
While certainly the process of conservation treatment is as much aart as it is a science, “artist” implies a level of creativity and original content that conservators strive to avoid. Any restoration work we do is as much as possible an educated recreation of the original structure or surface, and to add elements from our imagination rather than from good evidence is to do a disservice to the artwork and to the mission of cultural heritage preservation.
However, many conservatorare also artists, i.e., creators of new art, on their own time!
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1 Response to “Ask A Conservator” Gallery Feature at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art in St. Louis

  1. Watt Restoration says:

    Funny about the ‘stars in the sky’, but a lot of art conservation can be equally metaphysical. After all, as conservators, our job is to battle time on our art objects. So maybe, that post-it was very appropriate.
    Great post, clever idea,
    Ellen Watt

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