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Painting Storage Simplified

We thank Brandie Fields, Executive Director of the Orange County Historical Museum, for this guest post.

Framed storage before the project

The painting storage at OCHM bugged me ever since I started last September, and it came up again when I was planning for my inventory and internships this spring. Jon Zachman, Curator of Collections at the Greensboro Historical Museum, had been kind enough to stop by for a visit and help me brainstorm for the inventory and expressed his concerns over the storage of the paintings as well. I knew that we needed the space and needed to do something different with those framed objects. That’s why I was glad that C2C’s Painting Workshop with Conservator Perry Hurt was coming up so that I could ask him the best way to store them. Hurt showed us how to store framed works upright, and when I explained my situation to him, he suggested making painting racks with carpet until I could get a storage unit. (Keep your fingers crossed for that NEH grant to come through.) So, after setting all of the pieces upright in a little-used corner of the room, I went about finding materials and constructing these racks during our spare time.

Materials:

  •  Wood– 2′ x 4’s Ours came from mysterious black posts I had found stored in the collection’s room (taking up A LOT of space). Turns out at one time they had been used to display textiles? I had a board member bring a saw and cut the bases off and the posts to ~ 2 ½ feet long.
  • Carpet– I put out the call through our monthly e-newsletter for CLEAN carpet. Luckily one of my Board members recently did some remodeling.
  • Foil– This was the only thing I had to buy. I wanted to put a layer of this between the wood and carpet, since I had no clue how old the wood was, what type it was, or what type of paint had been used on it.
  • Staples and Staple Gun– Handy tool everyone should own, this is how we attached the carpet to the wood.

Steps:

  1. Find Materials. I got lucky that we had most of the materials at the Museum and it didn’t take long for someone to come forward with some carpet. My backup plan was to find and beg local stores/companies that sell or install carpet. The only thing I had to purchase for the project was the foil. It wasn’t hard to find someone with a saw to cut the wood either, I decided on shorter pieces due to the space constraint in our collection room. Plus in the future, if I do get the painting storage unit I want, I can re-use the small pieces to make a platform for other collection objects.
  2. Remove hidden nails and cover with foil. I got 2 27sq. foot rolls from the local Dollar Tree and still have some left over.
  3. Measure and cut carpet. This was the most labor intensive/annoying part. We did not have carpet scissors or blades. We tried several methods, including box cutters, normal scissors and fabric scissors. My staff person decided that normal scissors, while cramp inducing, made a cleaner line and were easier to handle. We left ~1-2 inches more at the top and bottom. Initially we cut so that the carpet would wrap around itself, but when we began stapling we realized our staples were not long enough to go through 2 layers of carpet. After briefly considering tying them with twill tape, my staff person began meeting the two edges together and stapling them on the back side. So for the first few, the carpet bows out around the wood but once we realized what we were doing, we cut the rest to fit more tightly.

Framed storage project completed

So overall, I would say it took us 3-4 hours to cut, foil, and carpet 14 individual units. Total cost for project: $2.14 for the foil; the rest we already had/was donated.

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Inventorying Ins and Outs

Collections inventories are essential to harness both intellectual and physical control of an institution’s collections. Accurate information on a collection’s size and scope is a crucial element in discussions of an institution’s significance. The qualitative and quantitative data an inventory generates is especially useful when working with potential grantors, donors, and other stakeholders.

How often should an inventory occur? Appropriate intervals depend upon the size of an institution’s collection and the capacity of its staff: National Park Service standards include a random sample inventory each year to ensure the maintenance of good records and a 100% annual inventory if a site has fewer than 250 accessioned items or has a backlog of uncataloged objects. Some institutions have an inventory system that provides for the verification of records for a section or percentage of the collection each year. For especially large collections, a full inventory may be completed in 10-year cycles.

What is the best time of year to conduct an inventory? The answer depends on when your institution’s lowest visitation levels occur. For some institutions, winter may be the slow season, but for others, fewer field trips leave summer more open.

Intern Meredith Jones hard at work during OCHM’s summer collection inventory

The Orange County Historical Museum staff is currently inventorying its collections. For OCHM, summer not only made sense as a result of fewer school field trips, but also because graduate students from local museum studies programs are more available to help with the project. Director Brandie Fields estimates that the museum houses 3,000 objects, including archival materials. The museum formally accessioned its holdings in the 1980s but the all-volunteer staff stopped keeping records in the mid-1990s. Over the last decade since the organization hired its first director, record-keeping has been spotty. Fields began in her position a year ago and gaining a more detailed understanding of the collection’s size and scope is one of her big goals for the inventory project.

A close second after the goal of intellectual control (knowing what you have) is physical control (being able to access it). Fields intends to establish accurate location records for each object in order to be able to find artifacts and fulfill various requests. A tertiary goal is to assess condition problems and flag artifact groups for future re-housing projects. Additionally, Fields and her staff have made small storage improvements as they proceed with the inventory. In some cases, they have been able to unwrap objects within boxes and create dividers between each one out of tissue and/ or archival board. This allows for increased visual access, less future handling, and more cushioning between each artifact.

How often does your institution conduct inventories? Can you recommend any inventorying techniques that may be helpful to others working in North Carolina cultural heritage collections?

Paintings Conservation

Many condition problems with paintings can leave an artifact unexhibitable. Tears, discolored varnish, and dirt layers can distract from the documentary and/ or aesthetic value of a piece. Repairs to a painting’s surface are best left to an appropriately trained and credentialed conservator. At times, fairly simple treatments such as spit cleaning or applying a new varnish layer can dramatically improve the painting’s appearance and not be too costly. Tear repair and filling in losses, however, are more expensive processes.

Most collection managers must focus their efforts on preventative conservation; proper storage and handling procedures can safeguard the artifact from further deterioration. While non-conservators should not work on a painting’s surface in most cases, there are several steps we can take to protect the overall artifact. During C2C’s “Preventative Conservation for Visual Arts” workshop, Conservator Perry Hurt trained participants in brushing and vacuuming the back of the canvas, installing backing boards, and replacing hanging hardware. Read one participant’s account of the workshop and some of the lessons she absorbed here.

As Hurt and Conservator Janet Hessling discussed with our group, a framed work’s backside is not only an important area to protect, but it can also be revealing. The back of the frame, and even the canvas, is often a site where artists, restorers, and owners have left documentation or other clues to the piece’s provenance. In the case of the James “Buck” Duke portrait in the collection of the Duke Homestead Historic Site, the verso offered information about the painting’s condition.

Once Hessling removed the non-archival backing board from the painting, our group was surprised to find a “ghost,” or vestigal form of the portrait. Hurt explained the shadowy image: “Most likely those marks are the result of something coming through paint cracks on the surface. The cracks formed along the brush strokes that model the head and collar. It may simply be dirt, or dirt carried by water, possibly from a cleaning attempt. Sometimes we see similar marks, or more properly stains, when an old painting is varnished. The varnish travels through the paint cracks and stains the canvas support. This type of staining is almost unavoidable with an old oil painting on canvas. The cracks are going to develop over time. If the painting is cleaned and or varnished as a conservation treatment, this type of staining almost always results.”

Does your cultural heritage collection include paintings or other framed works? If you’d like to learn more from Hurt’s expertise and missed a chance to attend the workshop during Preservation Week 2012, don’t despair. C2C, along with Hurt, will be offering the workshop again in Asheville this fall.