Visiting paper conservator highlights “Conservation is compromise”

In The Block Museum’s Eloise W. Martin Study Center – a multifaceted space that offers patrons and classes a setting for up-close study of artwork in the museum’s collection – visiting paper conservator Kim Nichols carefully inspects a piece from The Block’s permanent collection.  

Because of the clay pigments used in its making, protective tissue leaflets used in storage of the piece, Slab 5 (Stephen Mueller, 2006), have become affixed to its surface. As she lifts up the nonattached corners of the protective tissue, Nichols speculates that the cause is physical – the piece might not have been entirely dry when stored, perhaps – rather than chemical. She knows this because the piece’s polyester backing doesn’t react with the cellulose of the protective tissue. 

“I’m seeing some fibers adhered,” she says. 

Potential fixes are numerous. The tissue could be moistened slightly with hopes that it might then peel off the piece, for example.   

The solution Nichols opts for, after careful consideration and discussion with The Block’s Registrar and Collections staff, is far more hands-on: armed with a scalpel and a small metal spatula, she peels back the protective tissue millimeter by millimeter, carefully prying it from the surface of the print and using her tools to ensure that the separation is clean and harmless to the piece. There are two pieces of tissue on the piece, and removal of the first takes about 40 minutes. Everyone in the room watches, hypnotized, for nearly the entire process.  

Kim Nichols’ careful and painstaking work on Slab 5 is representative of an important but little seen role of The Block’s collections and exhibitions department. While The Block registrars hold a wealth of in-house knowledge about collection care best practices – the team also relies on outside experts for complex conservation projects that require a depth of knowledge on a specific medium or material.  The department is committed to exceptional care for the entirety of the museum collection – but also regularly engages in dialogue around artist intention and audience reception when it comes to material changes in the work. 

The rest of Nichols’ visit to The Block is less physically involved; she’s here to assess three more pieces, potential acquisitions for the museum’s permanent collection.  

“We’re trying to determine a, if there’s any work that needs to be done, and b what would that work look like,” says Kristina Bottomley, Assistant Director of Collections and Exhibition Management and Senior Registrar at The Block Museum.  

After inspecting the pieces, Nichols will offer a condition report and make recommendations for treatments, if any of them are in need. The Block Museum’s registrar and collections teams can then evaluate Nichols’ report and recommendations to have a better understanding of the works’ financial and physical needs before they enter the museum’s permanent collection. 

She also recommends best practices for storage and long-term care. For the print from which she’s removed the tissue, she suggests storage in a box so that the potentially sticky inks of the print won’t have contact with any surfaces they might affix to.  

One of the potential acquisitions Nichols inspects, an ink drawing on paper, shows signs of surface abrasion around the edges of its surface. Nichols and The Block’s registrar staff want to determine if those abrasions are from wear and tear to the piece, or if they might be the result of tape that was used by the artist in the making of the piece.  

“Another thing we’re often talking about in conservation is what’s intentional and what isn’t,” Nichols says. “What’s something that’s a result of artistic process, and what was added later.”  

She suspects the marks are from tape and recommends using a gum eraser to carefully remove any leftover adhesive.  

In another instance, Nichols surveys a small mark on the inactive area at the edge of a piece, musing on whether trying to remove it is worth the risk. There’s a chance that attempting to erase the mark could turn a small line into a larger blot – the opposite of what she hopes to achieve. It could be matted over, but matting can cause uneven discoloration in the piece over time.  

“Often, conservation is about compromise,” Nichols says.  

She recommends leaving the blemish untouched, and instead inviting onlookers to talk about it. As much as wear and tear to a piece can be unsightly, it also speaks to the ephemeral qualities of art; it reminds us that a piece won’t last forever. 

“That alone can get people thinking,” Nichols says.  

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