Archives & Museum Informatics
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Diagnosing Art: towards a new methodology for curators and conservation?

Holly Witchey , San Diego Museum of Art, USA


Session: Conservation Data Recording

For more than fifty years there has been debate in the museum community about what kind of crowds and what kinds of activities are appropriate in permanent collection galleries. As federal, state, and local funding for museums decreases, museums, motivated by economic factors, have increasingly sought non-traditional solutions to solve their financial problems. The 1970s ushered in the rise of the blockbuster exhibition, traveling exhibitions which brought large numbers of visitors into the galleries. With the increase in visitors came an increase in temperature, humidity, and (because of deodorants, hairspray and perfume etc.) an elevated level of organic and synthetic chemicals into the museum environment. In addition to blockbuster exhibitions, museums across the country started renting out their galleries and public spaces for private and corporate sponsored events.

No one know the exact effect of these exhibitions or gatherings on works of art because to date no actual data has been collected in a consistent scientific manner describing the effects of a museum's activity on its collections. Diagnosing Art seeks to educate museum professionals and visitors about the impact of interactions between humans and the art objects which form part of our cultural heritage.

Clinical cards are being created for twenty works of art with "baseline" physical examinations to include diagnostic imaging of objects in visible and raking light. Further diagnoses of the objects will occur using x-radiography, infrared-reflectography, and ultra-violet photography. After the baseline inspection each work of art will be tagged with three transducers and will be monitored daily for three years for changes in surface temperature, humidity, and paint displacement. Information from sensors will be transmitted digitally, using custom-developed software. Daily results will be supplemented by annotate records of physical conditions. Twice yearly, diagnostic imaging will be repeated any changes in the conditions of objects noted. The resulting product, a digital history of a work of art, accessible by curators and conservators alike aims to change the way we think about the objects in our care.