View into a museum with many antique statues in Munich.

Art is fun – but it’s also hard work

“The Barberini Faun will never be moved”

Every museum contains an installation or exhibit that is particularly hard work – because it requires especially laborious setup or illumination or needs to be monitored for other reasons. We talk to some conservators and curators about challenging art.

Dr Florian Knauß, Senior Director of the Staatliche Antikensammlung (State Collections of Antiquities) and the Glyptothek

“Many of our visitors assume our marble statues are very robust – and that is true of the heads, which have no dangerous forces affecting delicate areas. But it’s different for the large sculptures. When the sculpture is of an entire body, in particular, there are tremendous stresses simply from the weight of the marble alone. That is why there are a number of pieces in our collection that are never moved, such as the ‘Barberini Faun’.

We also never move our two ancient kouroi or our Aeginetan pieces, because those statues have already been broken – either at some point in antiquity or more recently – and were then put back together again. The connecting pieces used to make the repair are subject to immense forces.

The fact that some of our most valuable pieces have to always remain in the same place has been challenging – particularly in recent years. That’s because the Glyptothek was badly in need of renovation. Hardly anything had been invested in maintaining the building since its reconstruction following the Second World War – and at more than 200 years of age, the Glyptothek is one of the oldest museums in the city. We could have moved the sculptures into storage to protect them during the renovation works, but that would have been hugely laborious and cost millions. Most importantly, the risk of damage was simply too high. So we decided to enclose the sculptures with special wooden casings instead.

We could have moved the sculptures into storage to protect them during the renovation works, but that would have been hugely laborious and cost millions.

The Glyptothek art gallery has been open again since last March and it is looking absolutely radiant. Which highlights the second consideration that many visitors underestimate: the amount of preliminary thought and work that goes into staging the pieces properly. Following the Second World War, a few very successful interventions were made in the time of Johann Martin von Wagner, Ludwig I’s art agent. Rather than opting for a colourful marble floor and coloured pieces on the walls, he wanted the interior architecture to be rather understated, and that is largely how it looks today. The original masonry has been exposed and simply coated with a thin render. The floor has also been finished in limestone, so the sculptures take centre stage.

The window panes have also been replaced in the latest general renovation, as some of them had become completely opaque. That’s a problem which goes beyond pure aesthetics, because the sculptures were meant to be very deliberately illuminated with daylight. The new panes have made the lighting really wonderful. The illumination of the pieces changes as the sun moves across the sky, meaning you are always seeing them anew. The Glyptothek was almost a perfect museum before the renovations, and it has now become even better.”

Wolfgang Wastian, Head of Museum and Exhibition Technology at the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen

“The reason I applied to work here is that Museum Brandhorst has Europe’s largest Andy Warhol collection – he’s an artist who has always fascinated me. I especially love his large works, for example ‘Details of the Last Supper’ and ‘Oxidation Painting’. The latter is a good eight metres long and almost three metres tall. Not many people take the time to wonder how such a large painting even gets here. Though the canvas is one continuous piece, the stretcher frame behind it is made up of three parts connected by thin pieces of metal. If you don’t lift the painting evenly, the piece will immediately crease – which means I need eight people to hang this picture.

It is a painstaking process in which everyone must follow my directions with the utmost precision. The ‘Oxidation Painting’ is also known as the ‘Piss Painting’ because it is essentially just a copper-coated canvas sprinkled with urine. As such the canvas must never be touched without wearing gloves – we always wear two pairs to be safe, one nitrile pair and a cotton pair over those.

Though the canvas is one continuous piece, the stretcher frame behind it is made up of three parts connected by thin pieces of metal. If you don’t lift the painting evenly, the piece will immediately crease – which means I need eight people to hang this picture.

It is also interesting to know how the piece was moved to the lowest floor. Our goods lift wasn’t large enough to transport it. We pointed the problem out to the architects who had been tasked with building the museum around the existing collection. Their solution was to install a lift in the stairwell that could be extended if required. There was a special simulation needed to test whether the large ‘Last Supper’ could actually be transported within the building. Now I can use the lift in the stairwell to transport pictures up to twelve metres long and four metres tall. That said, I would be happier if we didn’t need to extend the lift all that often, as it requires time-consuming maintenance and must be approved by the TÜV [certifying technical inspection association].”

Iris Winkelmeyer, Head Conservator at the Lenbachhaus

“When Munich publisher Lothar Schirmer gifted us his extensive Beuys collection, the Lenbachhaus became one of the most prominent Beuys centres in the world virtually overnight. As a conservator, I find his work extremely interesting – not just in terms of content, but also because it is a particular challenge in terms of maintenance. Beuys deliberately used transient materials in creating his art: bird skulls, fat, talc, wax. Half a century after these works were made there are, of course, fascinating questions to consider: Can we intervene in the ageing process? How can we help the work? What should we avoid doing at all costs?

Beuys would certainly have preferred to have an organic lemon – he was early to realise the environmental impact of using pesticides and fertilisers too freely. Unfortunately, organic lemons age even faster than treated ones.

One good example is Beuys’ installation ‘Vor dem Aufbruch aus Lager I’ (Before Departing from Camp I), which he created from the remnants of a political office. In the centre stands a table on which a kitchen knife is placed, pointing to a small tetrahedron made from fat. When we acquired the piece for our collection the fat was almost entirely gone, but in particular, it had lost its striking geometry. In this instance we had to ask ourselves: what can we do to make this shape discernible again without interfering with the original substance? I used a soldering iron and some beeswax to form a tiny ‘tetrahedron garage’ and coated it in margarine. This now sits on top of the old grease stain, where only fragments of the original fat remain, and can be removed again at any time. After all, one of the most important principles of restoration in museums is that whatever changes you make they should largely be reversible. This also means that we don’t look at every piece of fat and say: we’ll have to remake that. On the contrary: we only consider intervening in cases where the ageing process causes the original statement to be unintelligible.

One other example is Joseph Beuys’ famous ‘Capri battery’. This piece consists of a lemon into which a light bulb holder made from Bakelite is inserted, and this in turn holds a yellow light bulb. The idea behind this piece is that the lemon has stored the sunlight and can therefore act as a battery, powering the light bulb. We exhibit it along with its packaging, which includes the amusing instruction ‘Change battery every 1000 hours’. We actually have to change the lemon every week as it ages more quickly because of the copper diodes.

Beuys would certainly have preferred to have an organic lemon – he was early to realise the environmental impact of using pesticides and fertilisers too freely. Unfortunately, organic lemons age even faster than treated ones. So as a conservator, I have to weigh up what is most appropriate for the work. The case currently contains a treated lemon, but if we find organic ones that are yellower and more beautiful, we prefer to use those.”

 

 

Text: Nansen & Piccard; Photos: Frank Stolle
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