The work of the NGV’s Conservation Department encompasses far more than the remedial treatment of an artwork to prepare it for display. Working in collaboration with other departments, conservators provide preventive conservation recommendations that are conducive to the long-term preservation of the State asset.
The Conservation Department ensures that optimum environmental standards are met for every artwork in storage, on display or in transit. The needs of each artwork can vary widely according to its materiality and history. For example, archaeological metals require a low humidity microclimate to limit potential corrosion damage from burial salts, while some external loans may come with specific contractual obligations for their display. The NGV endorses the Bizot Green Protocol 2015 which is committed to balancing the need for specific collection environments with environmental sustainability.
To secure artworks safely for open display, conservators work with Conservation Art Technicians. This involves preparing display mounts for supportive purposes such as an understructure for a historic sofa with a weakened leg, or making clips to hold a porcelain plate on the wall and provide additional security. Additionally, works on paper are mounted and framed in standard or customised frames by the Conservation Art Technicians ready to hang for exhibition. We also assist the Exhibition Design department by testing proposed materials for use in new exhibitions or displays, ensuring there are no damaging volatile organic compounds or other chemical components.
Conservators provide advice on the safe handling and movement of complicated artworks by the Exhibition and Collection Operations Department. This includes identifying weak or damaged areas of the artwork or planning its movement from one building to the next, or internationally. Conservators regularly accompany artworks travelling as loans for external exhibitions.
The storage needs of the different materials that make up an artwork demand different expertise. Conservators provide specialist advice on the storage environment or microclimates needed; for example, a low-temperature environment is used to store nitrate film, while the deterioration of some rubber or plastic-containing artworks can be slowed by storing them in a low-oxygen environment. Air-tight storage cases with a microclimate controller is used to store metals with corrosion concerns.
The Conservation Department works collaboratively with our Registration Department to advise on the appropriate storage methods for artworks.
Artwork storage and display must be managed to limit exposure to light. The action of light can create non-reversible damage by fading certain pigments and dyes, or hasten chemical deterioration processes. By tracking the exposure of artworks to light on our database, we can manage how long an artwork can be displayed before its pigments or dyes noticeably and permanently change. These preservation recommendations are balanced with the NGV’s other role, to provide access to the collection for display and research purposes.
The Assets & Facilities and Conservation departments monitor the results of regular inspections by professional pest management services, and advise on risks to artworks and proposed treatments where necessary. Pests can range from wood borers to silverfish, and treatments used to remove these pests are tailored according to pest mortality data and the artwork materiality. Pest treatments are generally undertaken on-site for new artworks entering the collection, or as part of our biosecurity obligations under the Quarantine Act 1908. The Conservation department uses low-temperature (freezing) treatments for smaller objects, and low-oxygen treatments (using nitrogen gas) for larger or more complex artworks.
The department undertakes thorough documentation of new artworks to understand the materials used and their meaning to the artist, often recording artist interviews. This enables the fidelity of the artist’s concept to be maintained, even if parts require replacement such as with kinetic artworks. The department also creates installation and maintenance guides to assist the ongoing care of the works.