NERAM’s extraordinary collections of artworks are known to a local, national and international audience. From exhibitions in Armidale to the Royal Academy in London, these iconic works form an important part of the history of Australian Art to the present day.
However, within the works themselves, a different story is hidden from view, one which has a significant impact on the future of the collections. Jennifer Butler, Registrar and Conservator for the NERAM Collections, tells us about the Operation Preservation exhibition now open at NERAM.
How did the Operation Preservation exhibition develop?
In March 2015, NERAM launched the Adopt an Artwork Campaign, an ongoing fundraiser, to assist with the conservation and preservation needs of the works held in its collections.
NERAM has over 5,000 works in its care, many of which have come to the museum after years in less than ideal environmental conditions. Often, visitors to the museum share stories of studying at the Old Teachers College here in Armidale and make a comparison between the careful care the works now receive, and the years of life in drafty corridors, full sunlight or damp corners. Those years have taken their toll on the works, which will continue to deteriorate if dedicated preservation action isn’t undertaken. This exhibition was developed by our Registration and Curatorial department to support the Adopt An Artwork Campaign, offer a different insight into the museum, and open the opportunity to the community to play a more personal role in the future of NERAM’s Collections.
What is Operation Preservation about?
Operation Preservation attempts to explain the role of preservation in museums and to look at the factors which cause deterioration in collections. Environment plays the most important part, with factors such as light, temperature, humidity, pests and handling requiring strict controls. NERAM’s biggest task is to provide an environment for the collection works which remains stable at all times – a huge task in a region with seasonal weather changes – and also to manage the effects of previous environments on the collections.
How do you identify which works need care?
In 2012, with money awarded from the Community Heritage Grants, a Preservation Needs Assessment was made of the Hinton and Coventry Collections. This assessment was really an overview of the collections, their storage, the temperature, humidity and lighting controls in place, and the building fabric itself. The assessment gave us a Priority Listing to identify which works within those collections are most in need of urgent attention, and which works are relatively stable. Sadly, it also identified works in the collection which are now too fragile for exhibition, and must remain in museum storage until conservation treatment is possible.
What is different about this exhibition?
Usually when visitors come to the museum to see our permanent collections, they are seeing the works beautifully presented to show the works at their best. This exhibition takes the opposite approach and will intentionally highlight the problems many of the works have, showing moldy or torn areas normally hidden from view, illustrating all of the factors which damage works and cause their deterioration over time. The exhibition is one of contrasts – the extraordinary beauty of the works alongside the everyday factors which not only take away from that beauty, but destroy it over time.
Why would looking at mouldy pictures be interesting?
Every work tells a story – not just the image that is presented as its face, but the condition of the work and unseen features which make it individual. This exhibition allows the viewer to experience a different way of understanding artworks – and ask questions: Why did the artist choose those materials? How has the original image changed over time through being exposed to light? Have the pigments and paper altered through chemical change to give the appearance of a different time of day or season? How has the choice of hanging a work in a particular frame affected the length of time that work might last? How do we use the materials and information behind the image to piece together additional information on its provenance?
Through this exhibition, visitors can gain a greater understanding of the daily link between art and science and apply it to their own collections.
People love to collect things. Understanding how to look after the things we collect is important, not only for the future of the past, but the future of the present also.
What will be the community benefits from this exhibition?
There are already strong community connections to NERAM’s extraordinary collections and historical links to a wider community and network of institutions. The Adopt An Artwork Campaign, and Operation Preservation, allows those links to develop at a more personal level. We have been fortunate in forging a new partnership with International Conservation Services (ICS) to undertake conservation treatments of the adopted works, largely due to the interest and support of ICS’s Managing Director, Julian Bickersteth. This has generated a plan for “in-house” conservation workshops in 2016, where visitors will be able to observe conservation treatments in process by trained conservators and graduate conservation students from Melbourne University.
Operation Preservation runs from 14th August 2015 – 18th September 2016.