Art Gallery NSW
What a couple of months it has been for the AGNSW Conservation Department, as indeed it has been for the conservation community as a whole. Who could have predicted the halting of ‘day-to-day’ life and closure of cultural institutions and businesses worldwide? The virtual has taken over the tangible with Zoom meetings, online learning and remote access to institutional operating systems.
In true conservation spirit, the AGNSW team has utilised this unique period of Gallery closure to its advantage. We have found that working from home with alternating days in the gallery has been a great opportunity for us to do things that we would normally struggle to find the time for, such as research, writing, working on the archive, consolidating documentation, catching up on data entry and taking the time to write up interesting projects. The team has harnessed this opportunity to consolidate thoughts and ideas and reflect on our ever-changing profession.
Before closure, the Paper Team had just welcomed Lois Waters who commenced working at the Gallery in late Feb. On arrival, Lois was thrown straight into the preparation of archival material for the Margel Hinder: modern in motion exhibition, the treatment of new acquisitions and works required for changeovers at Brett Whiteley Studios and in the Prints and Drawings study room. Lois is currently working from home three days a week on data entry, condition reports for the Margel Hinder and Classicism exhibitions, and research into screenprints in the AGNSW collection. She is continuing treatments on the Hinder works one day per week onsite, focusing on a series of fragile spiral-bound sketchbooks.
Lois and Sarah Bunn recently took part in the Modular Cleaning Program offered online by staff from the University of Delaware and will be participating in an interest group formed in response to this workshop specifically for paper conservators. Sarah Bunn has been working from home three days a week on data entry, exhibition lists and a joint poster on Yang Zhichao’s Chinese bible for the upcoming ICOM-CC conference in Beijing in 2021.
Analiese Treacy has been part of a skeleton conservation team working onsite one day per week, spot checking the condition of items still on display and installing works for the upcoming exhibition Some mysterious process: 50 years of collecting international art, which delves into significant acquisitions made by the Gallery over the last 50 years. Analiese has also been adapting to the constant changes being brought with the outward loan program and ensuring that the Gallery can facilitate and support our regional institutions as they re-arrange their exhibition schedules.
Jonathan Dennis who has recently returned to the paper team, has been moonlighting with the Time-based Art Team, using his newly developed ‘investigative skills’ during his time in curatorial. He has been conducting in-depth research into contemporary artworks in the AGNSW collection that have complex iteration histories, in order to comprehensively document the past and potential future legacy of each artwork. Such Iteration History Reports become useful working documents across the broader collections department, as not only curators, but conservators, exhibitions designers, installers, and registrars are able to holistically view detailed and technical aspects, as well as similarities and differences across various displays of the artwork. Jonathan also commits this time to an ongoing backlog of data entry for the paper / mount cutting department, as well as research and writing a poster on float mounting contemporary works on paper for a future publication.
In Paintings Conservation, Simon Ives and Paula Dredge have been working on their research projects for publications as well as undertaking treatments on paintings by Arthur Streeton in the lab on alternating days in order to maintain social distancing. Simon has begun removing a varnish on The Gloucester Buckets, an early NSW landscape painting from 1894, and Paula is retouching extensive drying cracks on Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide 1890 and removing a non-original varnish on Beneath the peaks, Grampians 1920.
Melissa Harvey has been consolidating and updating our suppliers list as well as researching materials to create a new hanging system for the old courts that will help protect the frames in our collection. Mel has also been undertaking a TAFE online course in team leadership, assisting with the dusting of works on display, organising the recalibration of our environmental dataloggers and sorting and filing a number of different documents.
Ellie Gifford has just started a short-term contract with us in March and has been set up to work from home on the Sidney Nolan artist’s materials archive in Vernon. Working from home has allowed us to turn our attention to less urgent, more meticulous data-entry type work, so it has been a great opportunity to get some of this archiving work done. Ellie is also helping with monitoring and updating our outgoing loans requests.
Time-based Art Conservation
Asti Sherring has been using isolation to undertake digital preservation tasks for artworks from within the Gallery’s TBA Collection and the National Art Archive, while simultaneously supporting the Gallery’s increased digital access needs. Asti is especially enjoying working creatively on Together In Art projects, many of which will appear on the Gallery’s digital platforms over the coming months.
Rebecca Barnott-Clement has been using WFH time to develop new workflows and procedures to support the transition of the TBA Conservation team from the physical to digital realm. Bec has been enjoying the opportunity to dedicate herself to collection care tasks in an uninterrupted manner, and the chance to work collaboratively with other departments across the Gallery to review the ongoing needs of the TBA collection.
Jake Van Dugteren continues to work on the TBA Obsolete Equipment Project one day a week, using the time working from home to develop workflows and procedures for when the physical survey and assessment of obsolete equipment can be resumed. On his days working as part of the Install Team, Jake has been spending time at the Gallery solo-installing works in the upcoming exhibition Some mysterious process, which is set to open later in the year.
In the weeks leading up to the shutdown, TBA conservation welcomed Lisa Mansfield on a short-term contract. Lisa worked with TBA, Objects and Audio-visual teams to test, document and install Shaun Conrad’s complex TBA installation work Pre-retrospective for the collection exhibition Under the stars. See an online tour of the show here
In the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, one day before due to travel, Malgorzata Sawicki cancelled her course on Cleaning Gilded Wooden Surfaces at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Both the University of Gothenburg and Malgorzata agreed that the course will be postponed until global travels resume, probably next year.
With closure of the Gallery, working from home arrangements have presented a great opportunity for the Frames Conservation Team to undertake research on frame labels and makers, advance datalogging on Vernon and tidy up the filing system. With many exhibitions in cultural institutions being postponed, Basia Dabrowa’s full conservation treatment of the Frank Mahony Rounding up a straggler frame and other frame treatments are on hold and she is working on documents and doing research from home.
On-site preparation for the 2020 retrospective exhibition Streeton has, however, been able to continue while observing social distancing protocols in the lab. Genevieve Tobin continues the major treatment of the frame for the Streeton painting The Gloucester Buckets, which is at an infilling and surface preparation stage for in-gilding and retouching. Tom Langlands has set up a home studio to work on the reproduction frames for Streeton, and has just finished two beautiful stained timber frames with gilded slips for A bush idyll and From my camp (Sirius Cove). Grace Barrand continues to work on the frame for Streeton’s The melon painting, a beautiful carved frame with a nod to neoclassicism, and has been using more time at home to work her way through the cookbook Ottolenghi SIMPLE by Yotam Ottolenghi (thanks for the tip, Tegan Anthes!).
Grace and Malgorzata both braved the 12:30am alarm to undertake Chris Stavroudis’ Modular Cleaning Program at the beginning of May. It was a fantastic and incredibly generous four-day workshop introducing the concepts and latest software of the program with over 400 conservators from around the world in attendance. Thank you, Chris!
Kerry Head, Sofia Lo Bianco and William Sit have been installing Some mysterious process at the Gallery, ensuring that works are ready in preparation for the reopening, and providing opportunities for works to be displayed online. WFH time has been spent updating data and researching artworks that will be displayed in Sydney Modern.
Melanie Barrett has been working on Margel Hinder works at the Gallery and WFH doing administration for a plastics survey of the artworks in the AGNSW collection.
Frances Cummings has been working hard keeping up with cancelled, postponed and rescheduled loans and exhibitions, while also doing artwork checks in the gallery and working on loans for the Margel Hinder exhibition.
Head of Conservation
Carolyn Murphy is working hard to keep conservation connected and informed in this fast-changing, new environment. Carolyn has been working closely with Anna Henry, Digitisation Project Manager, Asti Sherring and the Digital Preservation Project team to develop the systems, workflows and infrastructure required to support the digitisation and digital Preservation activities for the Gallery’s collections and cultural assets.
Our weekly Zoom meetings have also been helpful for keeping us all connected and checking in with how everyone is managing.
AGNSW Conservation team meeting via Zoom while working from home – all eyes on paintings conservator Simon Ives!
AGNSW conservation Joke Book
Now, for some light entertainment. Last year a handful of AGNSW conservators ditched the lunchtime crossword in favour of a more creative activity. The result was the Conservation Joke Book, which we would like to share with you all in this newsletter!
‘Are you sick of humourless meetings? Maybe you’re looking for a fantastic opener to that next conference presentation? Look no further! Tried and tested amongst leading industry professionals, the Conservation Joke Book is made by conservators, for conservators. Best enjoyed after quite a few glasses of wine. Like, a lot of wine. Proudly endorsed by the AICCM’
*This product is not endorsed by the AICCM.
Conservation Joke Book (with edits) [PDF – 2.6 MB]
Collection Care and Conservation
Heather Bleechmore, Acting Manager – The current COVID-19 work arrangements have given us the opportunity to look at workflow and strategy documents for the Unit and focus on the future direction and growth of the lab. We are also writing updated digital content for the CC&C webpage to include staff profiles, current research and ongoing projects. Planning continues for the return to our new reconfigured lab post-Project Discover and bringing the Pest Management rooms online as soon as possible.
Most of the CC&C team are still on-site for all or part of the working week. IPM, environmental monitoring, gallery maintenance and scheduled works, exhibition preparation, storage-upgrade projects, materials testing, and Project Discover impacts remain essential programs for the team to run at the main William Street site. At the off-site stores, continuing collection assessments and new acquisition documentation for the Pacific collection are being carried out. At Castle Hill, the recent loan return of 700 Egyptian objects is being documented, and outstanding stillage fit outs and triage treatments are being completed for mounted taxidermy specimens.
Irene Finkelde and Melissa Holt joined the team in March to work on an 18-month-long project to rehouse our dry Type collections. Irene has come on board as Project Conservator and Melissa as Assistant Conservator.
Collection Enhancement Project (CEP)
Unexpected discoveries in Palaeontology Store
Clare Kim continues to work on condition assessments as part of CEP. Recently Clare noticed minor yellow webbings on several specimens in the Palaeontology collection. Examining with a microscope, clear evidence of pest activity was found, such as black frass, caterpillar head capsules, and shrivelled carcasses. These activities are consistent with pantry moths or perhaps clothes moths (order Lepidoptera). Further scientific analysis is planned to investigate what attracted moths in the Palaeontology store. FTIR analysis will be performed on old adhesives used on labels to test whether they are animal-based or cellulose-based products.
Dry Types Project
Extra funding has allowed a large-scale review of our Life and Geoscience dry Type collection items. Sheldon Teare put this project together and is coordinating it with Irene and Melissa. Type specimens act as the ‘name bearer’ for that species. All other specimens are compared with the type specimen to determine whether they belong to that species or are a new species. These are the most important specimens in the Life and Geosciences collections. The project will enable each specimen to be assessed, condition reported and photographed; and then rehoused into conservation-grade materials.
Image: Rehousing specimens.
Megan Dean-Jones and Sheldon Teare removed several specimens from our Wild Planet gallery to make way for ceiling repair work to take place. A range of historic taxidermy specimens was removed, rehoused, and stored awaiting return when the work is completed.
Sheldon and Rehan Scharenguivel removed a showcase of bird mounts and a bower from a gallery after finding a specimen with pest activity. These specimens were frozen and inspected for further pest damage. Sheldon carried out XRF testing on all specimens.
The Spiders exhibition was returned early from Queensland Museum, and Sheldon has begun processing the registered specimens before returning them to collections.
Sheldon and Rehan were in the middle of planning to travel to Edinburgh to attend the joint Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) and ICOM Natural History conference when the travel bans came into effect. The conference will be moving to an online version.