Collections Care Nightmare
Thanks to Mary Douglas, Curator for the Kamm Teapot Collection, housed in Sparta NC, for sharing this collections story.
The preservation of mixed media pieces can be especially challenging, and this art sculpture/ teapot is a “nightmare” for Kamm Teapot Foundation Curator, Mary Douglas. Sculptor Mary Sprague created the “Locked Teapot” in 1993 and it became part of the Kamm Collection in 2005. In response to concerns over the piece’s preservation issues, the artist wrote:
“Since it’s message is about time, deterioration and loss ([one] reviewer called the work ‘elegiac’) and is made of rubber bands, waxed linen string, and sawed-off locks, among other things, it is designed so that over time the varnished rubber bands shrivel to make this point. It has been shriveling successfully since 1993 and is still structurally solid, while the skin is deteriorating nicely. I think it will hold together for a long, long time. I suppose the work might be a curator’s nightmare if permanence and [no] change are a goal, but it reminds me of a mummy.” – Mary Sprague
Although permanence may not be the artist’s intent, once a work enters a collection held in public trust, that collection’s stewards have a responsibility to care for it according to the best possible standards. Douglas must use the resources available to her to provide the best preservation conditions she can for this piece. She reports that the piece sheds when handled. The cause may be that the varnish the artist applied onto the rubber is now flaking off or it may be the embrittlement of the rubber itself. In either case, the piece should be stored in such a way as to limit handling.
Since the piece’s dimensions are 14” h x 10 ¼” w x 6 ¼” d, it would fit into a standard sized document storage box, set on its side, opening forwards. It would be ideal to customize this box and make a tray to place at the interior base of the box, so that the piece can slide out without handling. An ethafoam cradle or volara padding could also be attached to the tray and/or sides of the box, supporting the piece’s metal protrusions. A front-opening lid would allow access and could be attached at each side. Here’s a similar example by one expert artifact-box-maker who used Velcro to attach a hinged front.
A Microchamber box, whether pre- or custom-made, would be the ideal housing for this piece. Because rubber emits sulfites as it deteriorates, and because sulfites are metal-corroding agents, Microchamber’s pollutant traps would help mitigate the teapot’s inherent vice by adsorbing the sulfites.
Environmental conditions are also important for this piece’s preservation. A box will act to buffer changes in relative humidity (RH), which is important because rapid fluctuations may cause the rubber to crack as it changes dimensionally after moisture absorbtion and release. Cold storage will help preserve the rubber but RH must be kept low, especially with rust-prone metal components. Freezer compartments of frost-free refrigerators may have too high an RH, so the cool temperatures and lower RH of the refrigerator section may be the best bet for the longevity of the “Locked Teapot.” For more on rubber and plastics preservation, read this CCI leaflet here.
Any other suggestions to help keep the “Locked Teapot” as intact as possible in perpetuity?