Conservation: Bathing A Plaster Beauty
June 11, 2013
Morgan Nau, an objects conservator and plaster specialist on fellowship with American Art's Lunder Center clues us into how conservators keep our artworks clean.
Anyone who's ever cleaned and polished a wooden table, and then returned the next day only to discover a new coating of dust, will understand one of the many challenges conservators face every day —that endless battle against dust and dirt.
For some materials, such as glass, glazed ceramic, and plastic, dust can easily be wiped away. However, on porous materials like uncoated wood or plaster, as is the case here, dust and dirt can become ingrained in the surface. This makes it more difficult to remove, requiring more than a dusting. I conducted some tests using various solvents to determine what would the gentlest cleaner for artist Karl Bitter's plaster sculpture, Diana. And a water-based cleaning solution proved to be the best.
However, Diana threw another wrench in the works. As a plaster sculpture she is inherently vulnerable to water. Prolonged contact with water weakens plaster and can cause it to crumble. If water penetrates through the plaster it can cause rusting of the internal metal support.
This posed a unique challenge when devising a cleaning method. My water-based solution was very effective at removing the accumulated dirt, but I was concerned about using too much water. I reduced these risks by suspending the cleaning solution in a gel. This way I could put the solution exactly where I wanted it on the sculpture without fear it would affect other areas. In addition, the water would be prevented from saturating the plaster. Using this method I systematically cleaned the entirety of the sculpture, revealing her bright, painted surface.
If you would like to come watch Morgan and the other conservators in action, be sure to tag along on the next Behind the Scenes tour, which occurs every Wednesday at 3:00 p.m.
Related Post: Conservation: Not Your Usual Dental Check-Up
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