The Objects Conservation section supports the NGV’s collection of three-dimensional art across curatorial departments spanning antiquities to contemporary art. This involves working on a variety of materials that come in all forms and sizes from delicate jewelry to large scale outdoor sculptures. The preservation and conservation of these collection items requires extensive material knowledge, customised storage and display solutions and involvement in installation processes.
Understanding the material properties of a collection item is key to all decision making. In addition to visual inspection, objects conservators frequently use X-radiography, UV photography and other means of analytical assessments for material identification of the original fabric. This also helps provide an understanding of the history of the object and assists in devising appropriate treatment, display and storage methods.
Recently, technical investigation of the NGV’s significant holdings of Italian maiolica ware in the International Decorative Arts & Antiquities Collection was undertaken. This remarkable collection includes early utilitarian vessels through to later, more refined, wares of the Renaissance. Extensive technical examination of this encyclopaedic collection provided valuable insights into the materials and techniques of manufacture and history of use and repair.
The diversity of items in the three-dimensional collection requires a flexible approach to collection care that encompasses traditional conservation techniques and new, innovative solutions. The delicate and inherently fragile nature of a group of fine eighteenth-century porcelain figurines, which also forms part of the International Decorative Arts & Antiquities collection and includes numerous rare and important works, has provided opportunities for complex conservation treatments including detailed recreation of lost components such as missing fingers.
Techniques such as the use of paper fills in the conservation of the wood sculpture Derision of Christ, and the use of computer-designed and 3D-printed metal components for the reconstruction of Crown Jewels replicas are further examples of the creative, problem-solving mindset required to undertake treatment on the diverse range of artworks cared for by the section.
Installation of Moving out of muteness (2013) by Robert Andrew, involves an understanding of electronic and mechanical technologies combined with various natural elements such as ochres, oxides, chalks and water. When installed, the piece is programmed to selectively erase the surface layer of ochres and chalk with an intermittent water jet, eventually exposing the word NGANGA, meaning ‘language’ in Yawuru. Preserving complex works such as this, and ensuring they are displayed in accordance with the artists’ vision often involves interviewing the artist and archiving installation instructions for future displays.
Objects conservators liaise closely with a team of specialist Conservation Art Technicians dedicated to the safe and secure display of three-dimensional artworks. Fashioning bespoke mounts and security fixtures, their work is highly skilled and subtle, enabling selected items to be on open display for our visitors to appreciate. In display cases, their delicate yet supportive mounts stabilise and support collection items discretely and present them to their best advantage.
Conservation treatments and installation of larger works are often guided by their physical nature, weight, and structural integrity, often requiring specialist equipment such as scaffolding and cranes and making collaborations with other internal and external parties necessary. Constant evaluation of new technologies and their potential application to objects conservation include 3D scanning and photogrammetry, and the use of drone photography for condition assessments of inaccessible outdoor sculptures.
Chemically unstable collection items require tailored storage environments to enhance their longevity. For example, corrosion prone ancient bronzes from the Asian Art Collection and glass from the International Decorative Arts & Antiquities Collection which have a condition referred to as “weeping glass”, require a lower relative humidity than other parts of the Collection in order to slow these degradation processes. Silver items also require specialised care and are stored in a dedicated unit lined with a tarnish inhibiting material.
As the diversity of materials we support continues to expand, we aim to complement our traditional conservation skills with specialist training and technical understanding to meet the long-term needs for preservation of the collection.