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Contemporary Art Conservation at Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum

Latex, chocolate, soap, and video game software are just a few of the non-traditional materials that have inspired contemporary artists. While they embrace the modern, synthetic and technologically advanced world in which we live, some of materials present significant conservation problems for museum conservators. Gwynne Ryan, a conservator at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden discusses the challenges museums face with this issue: Should we keep art locked away to make it last? Or let it be experienced as it was intended while accelerating its natural degradation? For more information about the Hirshhorn's conservation program, visit: http://hirshhorn.si.edu/educate/page.asp?key=205&subkey=75.

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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Residuum
    Couldn't it be that the artist intended this piece to break down? Anyone who has ever worked with casting or molding latex would know that it breaks down rather quickly (in terms of years). Maybe this piece was designed that way to show that all things are in fact, temporary? And if so, wouldn't conserving it go against it's original purpose/meaning? Thoughts and ideas always appreciated.
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Gabrielle Pantano
    So how was this fishman piece preserved, or was it not? Then what about the piece of artwork mentioned made out of live bugs, or the one made out of pollen, or the one made out of chocolate, it seems like there really is no way to keep these original pieces they way are.
    (3 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Dhanu Sree Suresh
    How do people know when a piece of art was made because at it was said, " you' ll find things from the early 20th century spanning all the way to last week?"
    (2 votes)
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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?