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Contemporary Art Conservation at Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum

Video transcript

I'm Gwen Ryan, and I'm the sculpture conservator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The Hirshhorn Museum is the branch of the Smithsonian that houses primarily the modern contemporary collection. So you'll find things from early 20th Century spanning all the way to last week. We have two parts of our collection-- that that's housed indoors and then we also have our outdoor sculpture garden where you will find some of the most prominent artists of the 20th and 21st Century Contemporary artists still work with bronze and stone however, they also incorporate a lot of unusual an unconventional materials. You'll find things like chocolate or pollen or potentially art with live insects. There's a wide range of materials that you could find and they're not necessarily intended to keep use for artwork in the first place. So our role as a conservator is to look at that and say, "How can we continue to have this artwork last into posterity even though the materials themselves have inherent issues with their longevity?" One example of an artist working the materials that weren't necessarily intended to be incorporated into artwork and last into the centuries is Paul Thek. He was working in the late 60s with latex in 1969 he produced this piece, "Fishman" and adhered to the surface are replicas of fish also cut out of latex. So in the material has degraded to such a degree that we've already lost a couple of the fingers You can see the the internal material that's supporting the latex is so brittle that it's broken right off. KATE MOOMAW: "You know I think we might need to consider about his face them rather sunken in and distorted I don't know if there's anything that we can do to sort of correct that. It's a very delicate area. There's already a lot of tearing and repair work that needs to be done. GWEN RYAN: Yeah you can really see there is no flexibility in the material anymore. Our first step so far haa been to work with scientists at the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute to do some analytical work on the material. We've taken samples such and such as this cross-section Which shows how the rubber is degrading. It has a very brittle exterior surface while on the interior you can see the original color of the material. It's also much more flexible on the interior When we approach the conservation of a work that is employing really unusual or unconventional material that might have an inherently low lifespan you know, we're talking just maybe even a couple decades, we have to consider the message or the intent of the artist is. Is it really about the original material or is it about the experience of viewing the piece? What part of the artwork is important for us to preserve? When it comes to something like rubber or latex that only has the life span of a few decades, we do have to weigh preserving it, which would mean keeping it in an isolated dark environment, versus having it out on display. Putting something on display will naturally shortens life span but if that means that people get to see it, isn't that sort of the point?