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Protecting the Past for the Present: The Preparation of Artworks on Loan from France

The Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery Conservation Department was heavily involved in the organisation, preparation and installation of The Art of Science: Baudin’s Voyagers 1800 – 1804. This exhibition features original artworks on loan from France by artists Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit depicting the discovery of the Indigenous peoples, landscapes and natural sciences during Nicolas Baudin’s journey to the great, southern continent.

The national tour was formally announced in 2015 and Conservation became involved in 2016 for the exhibition to open at QVMAG in January 2017. Although the tour is travelling to six institutions, each will display different artworks from the Museum of Natural History in Le Havre and the National Archives of France collections. As with other international tours of this scale, the loans have been broken up into different shipments to ease insurance costs, handling and storage. The first shipment of artworks arrived in Australia to be displayed at the South Australian Maritime Museum for six months in Adelaide, QVMAG for three months in Launceston and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery for three months in Hobart. All venues except for those in Tasmania have or will be displaying their selected group of artworks for six months; however we are dividing this period in half in order to share works with TMAG that are significant to the Tasmanian story. As QVMAG and TMAG are sharing works, we have collaborated on the preparation of the exhibition.

Some visitors have assumed that all of the two-dimensional artworks came to us framed; however this was not the case. Shipping framed works would have increased the number of crates needed and the travel costs dramatically, so most of the original artworks were sent unframed. This meant that QVMAG’s Conservation Department had to cautiously prepare the works for display when they arrived. We have two Conservators on staff and I was given the task of managing this as I specialise in Paper Conservation.

QVMAG was allocated 85 unframed drawings and paintings. These works are different sizes and are on different substrates, which are paper and vellum. Another factor that we had to consider was that the standard matting sizes used in France did not match the standard museum frame sizes we have at QVMAG. We were provided with spreadsheets containing detailed information about the artworks; however we needed to work with the physical artworks in order to prepare them to evaluate how best to frame the 85 matted artworks into different sized frames.

Due to contractual arrangements, QVMAG had to wait till the exhibition closed at the South Australian Maritime Museum for the entire shipment to be sent to Tasmania. Therefore, I travelled to Adelaide to sight the original works in storage and to visit Artlab where Conservators had prepared the unframed works for display at SAMM. I spent many hours carefully assessing, handling and measuring the drawings and paintings. I was amazed at the condition and exquisiteness of the works that are over two hundred years old. From a Conservator’s point of view, they were beautifully mounted to the French mounts using a range of techniques and it was a joy to see them up close. I was excited to return to Tasmania and share my news with my colleagues and my TMAG counterpart.

Before investigating what sized frames could be used for each work, I wanted to consider the materials that were coming to us and how we would care for them while they were in our custody. The 85 artworks are on paper and vellum, which are two different substances. Paper is a fibrous, organic material and during the early 1800s it would have been made from recycled linen or cotton rags. These papers are highly durable and have withstood the impacts of time in comparison to papers that were made after the 1840s to 1850s that saw the introduction of wood pulp in the making process.

Vellum is proteinaceous and refers to a page that is made from calf skin. Vellum is a finer substrate than parchment which can be manufactured from the skin of a goat or a sheep. Both are made by repeated wetting, scraping and drying under tension on wooden frames to create a thin sheet. Paper and vellum are hygroscopic, which means that they absorb and release moisture in the environment; however they react at differing rates. Vellum is particularly susceptible to changes in relative humidity. Damage to both appears as cockling or planar distortion and some of these fragile works had signs of this upon arrival at QVMAG. We have monitored them very carefully to ensure that no further damage occurs. The running of the air conditioning system is a very important part of this as is the management of the exhibition to ensure that the relative humidity and temperature do not affect the artworks. The loan agreement that QVMAG has with France is to provide relative humidity at 50% +/-5% RH and a temperature of 20 +/-2 degrees. You might be interested to know that the works also travel in climate controlled conditions with cargo holds and trucks being air conditioned. The crates are also acclimatised at each venue before they are opened.

Between the time of my trip to Adelaide and the arrival of the shipment of the exhibition, I prepared all possible aspects of the job, including working out the dimensions of each artwork and choosing QVMAG frames to match, cutting new archival mats, and organising materials. I liaised with the Le Havre Conservation Department during this period and with staff from a number of the Australian venues that are hosting the exhibition.

QVMAG received the packed exhibition from SAMM just before Christmas 2016 and we had a tight timeframe to carry out all tasks due to the public holidays. Staff worked during the break and multi-tasked to make sure our deadline of 6 January 2017 was met. My first undertaking was to work with the French courier, who escorted the exhibition from Adelaide to Tasmania, to condition report all of the loaned works. Following this, we were able to start framing. As handling is one of the other major causes of damage to collection items, we made sure that only trained staff participated in the mounting and framing of French works. The process involved unpacking the works from boxes, matching them to the pre-cut new mats using object numbers, delicately mounting them, and then inserting the artworks into pre-chosen frames. We have used antique white rising conservation museum mounting board to match the mounts that the French institutions used and have made sure that each work is secure within every frame sandwich. The original artworks have been mounted with hinges and straps in a way that is completely reversible so that they can be removed during the unmounting and de-installation of the show from 20 March 2017, with no trace of ever being in our frames.

Another conservation task was to condition report numerous books and objects that are on loan from France and a few Australian institutions, including the National Museum of Australia and the State Library of Victoria. These were then installed by me and the team, following the installation plan. QVMAG has also added to the exhibition by displaying some of our rare natural sciences specimens and significant Aboriginal objects.

Light levels throughout the exhibition have been adjusted by QVMAG Gallery Officers to suit differing material types to contribute to their preservation. Light speeds up chemical reactions which can cause many types of damage including fading and discolouration of media; 50 Lux has been used as the recommended light level for the display of works on paper. This is the lowest level that has been found for visitors to enjoy drawings and paintings once their eyes have adjusted, while still providing some protection to the artwork. Ultraviolet light is the most damaging to works on paper and vellum so all of the gallery lights have UV filters and there is no natural sunlight in the Touring Exhibition Gallery. One conservation tactic that is used to reduce the amount of light that is subjected to pages in books is to turn pages periodically. This has been done throughout the exhibition as dictated by our loan agreements. Not only does this preserve delicate volume pages, it also means that viewers can appreciate more of the books that are behind closed cases!

There are only a couple of weeks to go until QVMAG closes The Art of Science: Baudin’s Voyagers 1800 – 1804 exhibition. It has been widely successful with many public programs and interest from visitors. After the exhibition closes we will begin the meticulous de-framing and unmounting of the French artworks that are to be packed and crated. Forty of the works will not be removed from their frames as they are being displayed at TMAG as previously mentioned. These works will be carefully wrapped and packed for transport, along with all other items in the exhibition.

This travelling exhibition has been a large undertaking for a regional institution such as the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery. However, it has been a wonderful team effort and has demonstrated the collaborative nature of cross-institutional museum workers. It has also provided an excellent opportunity for QVMAG staff to work with rare items that closely represent the state we live in. If you didn’t get enough of Baudin, Lesueur and Petit in Launceston, you have a chance to revisit the exhibition from April to July 2017 in Hobart.

AMY BARTLETT, QVMAG Senior Conservator

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