#AskaConservatorDay 2021

The National Gallery of Jamaica participated in our second #askaconservatorday on November 4, 2021. This annual international event was created to highlight the conservation practice and give the public an opportunity to ask questions and learn more about the profession’s contribution to cultural heritage management.   

Invitations to send in questions were posted on the NGJ’s social media platforms before the event and viewers were encouraged to ask questions during the live recording. Below are some of the questions the public asked for #Askaconservatorday answered by our conservator Ms. Joelle Salkey.

How does art conservation work?

Art conservation works through a series of deliberate actions aimed at ensuring the safety and longevity of art. These actions can be viewed in a scientific/ academic capacity or they can be as uncomplicated as good housekeeping. Once a conscious decision has been made to protect art and its surrounding environment, it’s considered a part of the conservation practice. 

Who handles art conservation?

Art conservators are trained heritage professionals.  They are really the only ones who should be executing art conservation techniques. 

What does the process involve?

Conservation incorporates a myriad of processes all executed with the end goal of preserving (to the best of our capability) the overall integrity of the art object. Some of these processes involve: observation, assessment and evaluation, research, testing/sampling, execution of treatment, monitoring and maintenance. 

When would a piece of art need to be conserved?

Once the artwork has been created and exists in a physical space it’s technically begun it’s conservation treatment. The safety and preservation of the artwork tends to be a continuous process and as menial as it may seem is a big part of the conservation process. Actual interventive or remedial conservation should only be carried out if the artwork shows obvious signs of deterioration and is in need of stabilization and restoration.

Does the gallery engage in conservation?

Yes, but only on works in the National Collection and that is conditionally based on the availability of resources at our disposal.

Are there a lot of conservators in the Caribbean?

Unfortunately, there are not enough conservators in the Caribbean. While I’m not certain of the exact number; in Jamaica I’m aware of 5 trained conservation professionals – myself included.

How long does it take to become a conservator?

It depends heavily on how far you are willing to pursue the profession and your background. Having a background in Art History, Art making and Chemistry is always an asset and will guarantee a smoother entry into the profession. Technically, a tertiary education in conservation can take you anywhere from 4 to 10 years depending on your areas of specialty and your academic aspirations. 

Why did you choose conservation as your specialty?

I, personally, have always had a love for art and art making. I love visiting museums and seeing art and artefacts made hundreds of years ago. When I realized a profession enabled me to merge my love for art and art history, as well as allowed me to physically touch these treasures, I jumped at the opportunity to become a conservator.

Are there ever pieces that you just can’t save? Give Examples.

Unfortunately, yes. On occasion conservators come across artworks or artefacts that have been so heavily damaged (whether by fire, pests, neglect or any extreme variation of the agents of deterioration) that our actions will have little to no beneficial effect. In these cases, we can document the current state of the piece and develop a maintenance plan for the remains (as we recognize that, even destroyed, it may contain valuable information to a researcher one day).  There are one or two works in the collection that exist as fragments (not caused by malicious intent, sometimes simply age and degradation of materials are a factor) but they are kept for posterity and still hold value to the national discussion on art. 

How would you conserve digital pieces? As you only deal with physical artworks.

Conservation is primarily concerned with the preservation of the original object’s tangible culture, meaning things that have a physical form. Digital art presents several challenges to the profession as in addition to lacking a physical form, there is the issue of originality. A file, once saved, exists as a copy or version of the original. Once transferred to another medium – whether by SD card or flash drive or cloud storage or even printed on a physical support – it is still recognized as a copy as multiple versions of the same file exist. If a printed poster is damaged by fire for example, the creator can simply print a new copy using the original file. There is practically nothing a conservator can do, outside of contacting a computer professional if the original file is lost or corrupted. By comparison, if a physical object is damaged by fire – not only can that damage be considered vital to the objects’ history (eg. The melted bottles of Hiroshima – which are significant because they show the damage caused by an atomic bomb), if minimal some of the aesthetical damage can be minimized through restoration. The damage should still be recorded as it will always represent a part of the object’s history and conservation treatment.

The conservation of intangible art is becoming a popular topic in modern conservation. With the rise of NFT’s and the popularity of digital art and social media platforms, we could look out for digital conservation professionals in the future.

What is the cost of conservation?

This depends on a variety of factors. If trying to establish a financial cost – it is dependent on the type of object, the age of the object, the value of the object, the composition of the object, the type of damage and the availability of resources necessary to stabilize and restore the object, and the time and expertise necessary to conserve the object. There’s no flat fee. 

A seemingly simple restoration procedure can run into the hundreds of thousands based on other factors not listed above. 

How much do you get paid to restore damaged artwork?

As mentioned above, a variety of factors can affect the cost of conservation and therefore the amount a conservator may charge.

What is the most difficult part of conserving paintings?

The preparatory work leading up to the treatment, including research and securing the relevant permissions to conduct a treatment. The amount of paperwork necessary to perform an ethical conservation exercise is very tedious. The treatment is the fun part.

Is it always necessary to remove varnish from a painting during treatment?

No. It is not always necessary to remove varnish from a painting to execute a treatment. This is heavily dependent on the use of the object and the extent of damage to the object. If the damage is minimal, some restoration can be done without removing the varnish layer. Varnish removal is extremely detrimental to the artwork and should be minimized where possible due to the use of harsh solvents.

What do you do if a painting is flaking?

Lie the painting flat, face up and take photographs of the areas of damage. Then call a conservation professional.

What does “re-touching” mean?

“Re-touching” and another term “in-painting” are used to describe the restoration process of matching a pigment or design on an artwork or artefact. This “re-touching” is done to enhance the aesthetic qualities of the object which can lead to its overall appreciation as a seemingly complete object rather than bring focus to the areas of damage. 

What’s the oldest artwork you’ve worked on?

To date, about 1000 years old – mechanical cleaning of a Taino Duho.

How do I know a conservator is qualified before I have them work on a piece?

This is quite a complicated question. There’s currently no existing framework of accreditation in the Caribbean that can assist with identifying a verified conservator. In the Jamaican context, our conservators have tertiary accreditation in Chemistry and or Art making or Conservation and have contributed to conservation awareness through teaching, workshops and articles. They also have years of verified experience in their chosen fields and follow an international code of ethics (ICOM) that is based on ensuring the inherent safety of the artworks in need of conservation above all else. Before you employ a conservator, you can ask about their training, their level of experience, area of specialty, and years in practice. You could also ask to see their portfolio and for verified references who could recommend their work. 

Will artists ever work with you on a treatment?

Occasionally, yes. The artist often supplies us information on the composition of the artwork which is beneficial to the long-term preservation and treatment of the object.

Are there many job opportunities as a conservator?

Unfortunately, because the profession is not well known in our region, it’s a little difficult to speak about the opportunities available. Internationally, conservation is a long-serving profession that once entered people tend to stay in the job position until retirement or longer. This tendency to be “long-serving” does tend to have an impact on job availability. There are greater opportunities internationally, but over time we hope to have increased awareness of the profession that leads to more full-time job opportunities.  

How does one become a conservator?

You can become a conservator by entering a conservation program at a recognized institution or university at the undergraduate, graduate or even postgraduate level. A beneficial asset is a background in any of three core subjects: Chemistry, Art History or Art practice. 

What do you love about your job as a conservator?

Personally, I truly enjoy being around and physically interacting with objects of heritage and art. I have a fascination about very old objects and I enjoy preserving these historical markers for future researchers and members of the public to enjoy. I really enjoy being a part of the reason these objects “survive time” and the fact that conservation grants me the opportunity is a blessing.

Are there any training programmes for conservation in Jamaica?

There are, though they are very rare. We encourage you to follow our social media pages as well as the social media pages of our National Museums Jamaica, the Institute of Jamaica as well as the Jamaica National Heritage Trust to see when announcements are sent out.

I hope I was able to answer your questions with clarity and if there are more please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments below.

Thank you for participating in this years #AskaConservatorDay exercise. And thank you for your interest in conservation!


Hurricane Preparedness and Your Art

The Atlantic hurricane season begins annually on June 1st and continues until November 30. To date, the 2020 season has set a new precedent in terms of having the earliest forming storms and occurrence of two active storms in the region simultaneously – and we haven’t reached the peak of the season yet! Hurricanes and tropical storms are comprised of winds rotating around a low pressure centre, and are formed over warm waters. In the Caribbean, extreme winds, flooding and lightning strikes are common and in many cases cause significant threat to human life, property, and major infrastructure. Based on this once a storm threat has been identified, governments and businesses put strategies in place to manage the effects of these natural phenomena on their operations and hasten recovery.

In addition, museums and heritage institutions housing important cultural items have also developed disaster management plans for this annual storm season, which is composed of conservation and risk management methodologies. With the understanding that hurricane winds can escalate to speeds of more than 119 km/h as well as, the volume of water can increase 0.6 inches/665km radius, heritage 2 professionals apply that knowledge to build effective disaster prevention plans for their collections. Many plans, regardless of the institution, contain similar or general rules such as “never store artwork on the floor” in case of flooding or “avoid placing artwork near exposed windows” in case of water and wind damage. Equally, museums and heritage institutions tailor their disaster plans to the specific challenges that they face.

These methodologies provide the necessary framework for protection and preservation of our priceless tangible assets, and ensure their longevity for future generations to enjoy. 

So what measures can we use to protect our tangible cultural heritage? 

While it is difficult to plan for every possible outcome, conducting risk management assessments can go a long way in mitigating the amount of damage our cherished valuables receive. Much of this mitigation involves practicing preventive measures in light of the many “what if’s” that may trouble the mind, once a tropical storm announcement is made. With an extremely active hurricane season predicted for the remainder of 2020, the National Gallery of Jamaica would like to share some of our tips to help protect your art and valuables during this hurricane season. To assist your preparations, we’ve separated our checklist into two sections for your benefit, these are: Before and After. We invite you to read through and prepare appropriate to your needs.

  • Develop a hurricane preparedness plan for your artwork.
    • If one already exists, review to ensure information is accurate and up to date.
    • Ensure that individual/employee responsibilities are outlined in a clear and concise manner. Eg. In the event of a power failure, who is responsible for the operation of the generator?
  • Photograph all of your artwork and store the photos safely.
    • Take photos of their placement in their current placement and up close photos of artwork itself.
    • Take photos of the painted image (the face) along with the reverse (verso) of the work for comparison.
    • Be sure to label each photo appropriately and upload them to an online storage platform like google or one drive for safekeeping. You can email the photos to yourself as well.
    • If you prefer or do not have access to an online storage platform, you can store your images on a secondary storage device like an SD card or flash drive and store the physical devices in a waterproof location.
    • You may also print the photographs, if you prefer, but be sure to label and store them in a ziplock bag or waterproof location.
  • Record the condition of your works.
    • This should involve documenting the artist name, dimensions, and current condition of the work (good, fair, poor). Document everything associated with the work to the best of your ability.
    • If you are not sure what to do, contact a heritage professional or a conservator for advice.
  • Get an appraisal of your artwork. In the case where your collection carries significant value, get a certified art appraiser to give you an estimated value. Secure this documentation as it will be crucial for your insurance at a later date.
  • Identify the safest room in your home or business to store your art:
    • Ensure windows are sealed and watertight, that there are no leaks or weakened areas of the roof.
  • Remove art from the walls and store elevated from the floor (at least 3 ft):
    • If possible, stack paintings vertically from largest to smallest, ensuring the frames of the preceding and succeeding works rest comfortably on each other. If unframed, place a sheet of acid free tissue paper where edges of the work touch to mitigate sticking and paint loss.
  • Cover your art stack with a plastic sheeting or tarp:
    • Secure edges of the plastic sheeting at the same time allowing some air to pass under the sheet. It is essential that you do not create a microclimate which will encourage mold growth and moisture damage.
  • If possible, consider crating your art:
    • Building specialized art storage will go a long way in ensuring the safety of your collection.
  • In the case of outdoor sculptures consider building a support or securely anchoring the work with rope to a concrete beam:
    • Where possible avoid anchoring to the ground as the earth could become waterlogged.
  • Consult your disaster management plan.
    • Contact all those involved according to the tasks delegated in the plan.
  • Remove plastic sheeting, and relocate collection to a safe but brightly lit and ventilated area and conduct an inspection.
    • Use photographs taken before the event to determine any condition changes to the artworks.
    • If damage is identified contact a conservation professional or depending on the extent of the damage you can carry the work to a local framer for advice.
    • Be on guard for water or moisture damage around the fame and on the matte or linen liner if present.
  • Conduct a condition report.
    • Using the same format as the condition report documented before the event, note the current condition of the artwork. Document any changes noted during your inspection. If no changes are noted secure your condition report for future reference – it will be needed in the event of another Hurricane or Natural disaster.
  • Contact your insurance company and inform them of damage if present.
    • The conservator will provide you with a condition report which along with the appraisal should be handed over to our insurance company with your claim documentation.
  • If damage is superficial ( only to the frame for exterior parts of the work), lightly dust the artwork with a soft brush or microfibre cloth and return to the hanging position on the wall.
    • If this is not possible, return the artworks to the storage stack or to the crate until it is safe to display them.

1 Matthew Cappucci. (2020) “ Tropical storm Nana forms in Caribbean, could make landfall as hurricane in Belize. Omar forms off East Coast.” The Washington Post. September 1, 2020. URL:https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2020/09/01/tropical-storm-nana-nears-formation-caribbean-atlantic-hurricane-season-stays-unusually-active/ [September 2, 2020]

2 According to Meteorologist William M. Gray, former head of the Tropical Meteorology Project.

Art and the Tropical Climate – Part 2

Works of art from the National Gallery in London in storagte at the Manod Quarry in Wales during World War II

Works of art from the National Gallery in London in storagte at the Manod Quarry in Wales during World War II

Here is part two of the article on tropical art conservation by Joelle Salkey. The final section of the article includes tips for private collectors on how to safeguard their collections.

As fatalistic as this article has made tropical RH concerns out to be, with proper risk management and good housekeeping most crises can be avoided. However, in cases where the heritage object is delicate or fragile, good housekeeping may not be sufficient to ensure the object’s preservation. In such cases specific knowledge of the materials and techniques is required to aid its preservation. Tropical collections differ greatly from other collections around the world in that objects in such collections tend to consist of more organic materials, and a greater majority is classified as ethnographic objects. Problems can occur when the specific characteristics of the objects and their materials, as well as the conditions under which they are kept, are ignored.

In January 2014 American curator Cash Brown blogged about her experience at the National Museum in Myanmar[1]. Myanmar has a tropical monsoon climate. Despite a fairly well maintained exterior of the museum, Brown noticed severe damages to most of the works from the collection which were not endemic to the region. She noted that works of photography, works on paper and oil paintings showed signs of degradation ranging from mild to severe, while the musical instruments, lacquer ware, wooden, stone and ceramic artefacts fared better. The museum objects that were made from locally found materials are chemically acclimatized to the conditions found in Myanmar. Those that were not native to the climate were ravaged by high humidity, and fluctuating temperatures made possible by the lack of proper climate control and supervision.

The National Museum in Myanmar

The National Museum in Myanmar

This phenomenon of acclimatization was first documented in London, when in preparation for WWII the National Gallery in England decided to secure their collections in limestone quarries in Wales. After the war, the collections were inspected and all found to be in good condition. They were removed from the temperature and humidity-controlled quarries and then re- introduced into the museum environment[2]. This relocation was observed to have a disastrous effect on the condition of the collection, as various artworks began to rapidly exhibit various forms of distress and deterioration after relocation. After some investigation it was concluded that the works of the collection had acclimatized to the constant environment presented in the quarries, which differed greatly from the inconsistent museum climate. It is important to note that the museum’s exterior environment plays an equal role in the stability of the interior environment and also has to be factored into preventive conservation and risk management controls.

Severe disasters pose a serious threat to the conservation of artefacts as they are often unpredictable or unpreventable. In the case of earthquakes, measures can be taken only after the catastrophic event has already occurred, although proper mounting and storage practices can help to prevent damage. Hurricanes and tropical cyclones form over tropical waters, in areas of high humidity, light winds and warm sea surface temperatures (26.5 degrees celsius and greater)[3]. There has been a very pronounced increase in the number of tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic since the late-1980s. This trend has been identified by scientists as a side-effect of greenhouse warming.[4]

Flood damage at a Chelsea gallery after hurricane Sandy

Flood damage at a Chelsea gallery after hurricane Sandy

The most common types of damage caused by storms and hurricanes involve flooding, and structural damage caused by the increased wind pressure. The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Damage-Potential Scale[5] is used to determine the potential destruction caused by a storm in accordance with its assessed strength, and has become a very useful tool for risk management of tropical collections. According to the scale, if a storm is classified as Category 1, some minor physical damage to shrubbery and property can be expected. If risk management is applied accordingly, a collection can be protected against the increased rainfall, ensuring all leaks and structural infractions are corrected and secured.

As the severity of the storm increases, the risk management plan must become more specific to the types of collections, whether wood, metal or composite collections. For example, when faced with a Category 4 system, it can be expected that the risk of flooding will increase, as city runoffs are unable to contain the volume of water caused by heavy rainfall and storm surges. This then indicates that the potential damage to the collection by water damage is potentially higher than that of earthquake damage. All measures should be taken to elevate the collection or move them to a higher and more secure location. Hydroscopic objects should be given priority above non-hydroscopic works. They should be kept in conditions as close as possible to their accustomed climate in the museum environment. The instinct to cover all objects in plastic should be avoided as this could create localized climates within the plastic, and encourage mold growth.

Once risk management procedures are put into place and followed accurately the potential longevity of a collection should be ensured. The challenge is now to distinguish what environmental conditions and risk management procedures work with the tropical environment to protect tropical collections. This calls for a greater understanding of the risks posed to the region and the creation of effective disaster plans for the works found in the tropical collection.

Protecting Works of Art in the Home

In the home, disaster and risk management plans are just as effective as in the museum setting. While the average art owner or collector might not have access to sophisticated environmental monitoring equipment or HVAC controlled environments, he or she can assess the damage potential to any work of art and make provisions to ensure its safety. There are several agents of deterioration common in any household setting that should be given attention. As mentioned extensively in this article, temperature and RH are considered agents of deterioration, however in a home setting there are often other agents that take priority over fluctuations in climate.

Continue reading

Art and the Tropical Climate – Part 1

Osmond Watson - City Life (1968, Collection: NGJ). This oil painting on canvas suffered from significant flaking and paint loss

Osmond Watson – City Life (1968, Collection: NGJ). This oil painting on canvas suffered from significant flaking and paint loss

In the early years of its operations, the NGJ has employed conservators, Trevor Burrowes and Stanley Barnes, and more recently the NGJ has benefited from various short-term conservation projects. We are now developing a long-term, in-house conservation programme, as part of our dcollections management. Here is the first section of a two-part article on tropical conservation by Joelle Salkey, a Jamaican art conservator who has recently joined our staff.

When defined in the scope of art and heritage conservation, the tropical climate presents a major source of problems for the display and storage of material collections. While tourists flock to the warm balmy climate, conservators scramble to find cost effective climate controls to maintain lower temperatures and reduced humidities. This is due to the fact that the unchecked tropical climate falls drastically outside of the conventional climate control specifications, of 21 degrees Celsius with 55% Relative Humidity (RH), established by twentieth century conservation professionals.

The obsession with identifying the ideal environment for artwork and museum objects assumes that the farther you stray from the ideal target the greater the damage posed to collections.[1] However tropical climates typically register temperatures averaging 24-27 degrees Celsius with a relative humidity of 65-70%. Following this, tropical temperatures are conducive to increasing the rate of decay in museum objects, with the rate of chemical and biological activity doubling for every increase in temperature of 10 degrees Celsius[2].

To make matters worse, tropical regions are disaster prone, suffering from more occurrences of hurricanes and earthquakes than other climate regions. Natural disasters are unpredictable and although they cannot be prevented, risk management offers a line of defence for a tropical collection. The concept of risk management is appearing ever more frequently in conservation literature[3], indicating that the old adage “prevention is better than cure” is very important in preserving the longevity of a collection.

Osmond Watson - City Life (1968, Collection: NGJ), afer its restoration at the Western Centre for Arts Conservation, Denver, Colorado, in 2010. This conservation project was funded by the US Ambassadors' Fund.

Osmond Watson – City Life (1968, Collection: NGJ), afer its restoration at the Western Centre for Arts Conservation, Denver, Colorado, in 2010. This conservation project was funded by the US Ambassadors’ Fund.

A risk assessment – whether formal or informal, extensive or conducted on just a small section of a collection, is a useful tool used in museums and other cultural institutions to prioritize the execution of preventive conservation methods. The goal is to hopefully prevent damage or, at least, to limit the extent of the damage. By estimating and calculating risks, museums and conservators can create measures to counteract hazards and to the best of their ability protect objects of cultural heritage.

The creation of risk assessments leads to a better understanding of the museum objects and how they respond in their various environments. Relative humidity and temperature are two of the most dangerous risks to an object’s permanence. Hence through risk assessment in conservation the museum or cultural institution can better evaluate suitable ranges of temperature and humidity to store and display objects.

With regards to the museum environment, museums and collectors face the challenge of finding a balance between the ideal climate and financial feasibility. This challenge is easier to accomplish if the objects being stored or displayed are of a similar makeup. For example, if a wooden sculpture is placed (as it should be) in storage with similar wooden objects, it is easier to follow the recommended storage temperature of 12-18 degrees Celsius and a humidity of 50-60%[4]. However, complex or composite objects consisting of more than one material in their makeup, are a bit more difficult to correctly store at their ideal temperature. A broader range is given to composite objects, designating 16-18 degrees Celsius in temperature and a 40-55% humidity range.

Continue reading