Collections Care and Conservation

A Non-renewable Resource 

From exhibitions and educational programs to publications and research, the Museum collections fuel almost all Museum activity. Preserving and protecting these collections are the most important ways that we serve our public. Museum collections are primarily a limited and non-renewable resource, having much in common with the resource concerns of the environmental movement in requiring careful management and ongoing conservation. The care of Reynolda House collections is one of the cardinal responsibilities of our staff and Board Members, and is an integral part of the Museum’s mission.

What is Collections Care?

Collections care encompasses everything from maintaining good inventory controls to making sure that proper pest control measures are taken. Today, the idea of preventive care, more commonly known by the term, preventive conservation directs how museum collections are taken care of on a daily basis. Controlling deterioration of art objects through the control of environmental factors that lead to damage is the basis of preventive conservation. This approach means providing optimal climate, storage and exhibitions environments as well as limiting light exposure and handling. For example, if you visit the Museum and do not see one of your favorite works, it may be because it has been rotated off view temporarily in order to reduce light exposure over time.

What is Conservation?

Over time, all objects change or deteriorate as a result of use, accidents, environmental conditions, and natural forces of decay—age. How an object is handled, displayed, and stored can mean the difference between preserving it for many years or for only a short time.

The practice of conservation dates as far back as antiquity. Over the centuries, it has evolved, and by the early 20th century, large museum and public institutions had founded their own conservation studios. As conservators have come to better understand the chemical processes underlying treatments, they have become more conservative in their approach, namely, that every act of treatment should be reversible.  

In most cases, conservation treatment on an art object is focused on preventing further deterioration and stabilization of its condition rather than restoring the piece back to its original state. This effort is centered around preserving as much of the artist’s original work as possible rather than trying to recreate the artist’s vision.  

In the six-minute video shown below, contract paintings conservator Ruth Cox explores the treatment of the Museum’s work Spring Turning, 1936, by well-known artist Grant Wood. The Museum was awarded a grant from The Henry Luce Foundation for the treatment of this painting along with several other masterpieces in the collection. 

American artist grant wood’s masterpiece spring turning depicts a 1930s rural America with lush green hills and fields in this scene of idyllic farm life the painting entered the renilla house museum of american art collection in 1991 as a gift and is one of the museum’s most beloved works of art managing curator Alison slavey talks about the painting Grant Wood lived in Cedar Rapids Iowa for most of his life and he painted the people in the land of the Midwest and really clear readable style in spring turning from 1936 we can see some influence of modern abstraction in his work like the interest in geometry and simplified forms but the overriding emphasis is on recognizable subjects painted in a representational way what’s really memorable about the painting is the sensuousness of the land the hills just seem to breathe and undulate glowing with brilliant color the painting was completed in the middle of the Great Depression and it was a time when the industry and commerce of the city were crumbling with spring turning Grant Wood was responding to the condition of urban areas during the Depression by making a strong statement about the health and vitality of the agrarian way of life during a recent condition survey of Reynolds paintings collection spring turning was found to have several conservation related problems and treatment for the painting was then scheduled the most notable condition issues are the large traction cracks seen throughout the painting especially in the rolling hills and areas of the sky and clouds along with the cracks we also see significant yellowing of the varnish layer of the painting varnish naturally yellows with age and changes the perception of the artists palette not allowing the viewer to see all the variations and nuances of color originally intended by the artist conservateur Ruth Cox talks about another condition problem that is actually a result of grant wood’s technique the wide aperture cracks and the shriveled paint that we see in different areas of the painting have occurred because of how grant will have manipulated his paints in this case it’s because of the way grant would both layered his paint and also the amount of oil content and the amount of solvent that he added to the paint during the painting process conservation treatment of a painting starts with a thorough examination and written condition analysis the backing board is removed and the reverse of the painting is examined then the painting is observed in a dark room using both raking light and ultraviolet light raking light which is a glancing light allows the viewer to see deformations and insecure areas that could not be seen in normal light it also lets us see brushwork in high relief ultraviolet light allows us to see layers of paint applied years ago in previous treatments these layers show up as darkened areas clues that we’ve gotten from the examination in different types of light and under different lighting sources now lead us to looking under the microscope to see specific problems up close and personal next tests are performed to determine the appropriate solvents for the safe removal of the varnish layer in the profession of conservation the philosophy centers around the idea of reversibility using materials that can be easily removed and that do not disturb the artists original paint layer is of primary importance the varnish removal is the most critical and delicate part of the entire treatment old editions bypass conservators are removed very carefully without damaging the original work of the artist in this shot you can see the sharp demarcation of the area of the painting that has been cleaned and the area that has not been cleaned the next step in the process is to address the large traction cracks covering the surface losses and cracks in the paint film are filled with a synthetic gesso in order to bring the paint film up to a uniform level overall this helps to reduce the severity of the cracks with patience and expert skill the cracks are slowly filled after the paint film is filled and all the losses are compensated we put the painting back on the easel and begin the retouching phase of treatment the first step is to under paint those fills and pinpoint losses in the paint film with watercolor paint one of the final steps in painting replicates the surrounding areas and colors in painting requires technical proficiency developed by the conservator over time with years of practice filling in only what is necessary the conservator carefully matches the paint color and texture of the artists work a protective varnish layer is applied upon completion of the treatment cracks and discoloration no longer detract from the beauty of the painting now that the paint is secure and the treatment is finished spring turning is ready for the museum to exhibit and for visitors from around the world to view and enjoy you

How can I help?

By becoming a Museum member, you help support the overall mission of Reynolda House and in turn, support the future of Reynolda’s collections. 

Members of Reynolda House
Illustration of Reynolda House
Join or Renew Now
Friends of Reynolda Gardens
Illustration of Reynolda Gardens
Join or Renew Now