Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Do Not Touch - We are contact-phobic!

Since having a super-stiff neck isn’t very conducive to exhibition viewing I don’t have much to write about any particular show or artwork these days, to the dismay of one of my casual readers (Hi Ivan!).
I was at LACMA yesterday doing a spot of friend-visiting, but didn’t get to see the shows (There’s SoCal and Arts of Latin America at present). I want to admire my friends’hard work in a good context to do them proper justice,
So I thought I should instead explain a few things that always bum visitors to museums, so you are well prepared when you come visit the two aforementioned exhibitions.

The most important thing you need to know is ensuring conservations rules are strictly enforced almost always means having to forgo optimal viewing conditions. Therefore, curators and conservators are often at loggerhead about how to show artworks, or even whether artworks should be shown ever. Anyway, let's start:

1. Do Not Touch Artworks. Ever.

Well, almost never, because there are a few instances of contemporary art when the viewer is encouraged to even walk on the artworks. Carl Andre floor pieces come to mind.

Why? Because even if you are some OCD-neat freak, you always bring in on the tip of your fingers some invisible bacteria with you, some grease also (moisturizers are invisible but dirty), and occasionally some fungus spores. Purell doesn’t solve it all, alas. Bacteria and fungus alone can damage works on paper quicker than you can say “Eew”. Ever wondered why these art technicians you were seeing on documentaries - that is, if you watch, I don’t know, PBS and the History Channel? BBC?- are always wearing gloves when manipulating artworks?

Of course, every single person I’ve ever met who admitted to artwork-touching in my presence had to tell me their hands were very clean (so what?) and touching one artwork “once” surely couldn’t harm the poor thing, could it?
Not only it can but it most certainly does.
Even that nice Rodin marble sculpture that looked so soft and tender and sensual you couldn’t resist touching it. You pervert. It is alabaster.
Before your fateful vandal visit to the museum, hundreds of careless people thought doing it “once” wouldn’t hurt. So multiply the few thousands fingers per year touching “just once” the sculpture at the Rodin museum by the amount of dirt it brings, and the “patina”-encrusted statues have to be cleaned. Because you are the same person who complains about how gray and dirty the statues look and how come these are not cleaned?

Cleaning does damage even stone. If you’ve seen a house façade being sandblasted you have an idea of what treatment awaits that poor lovely sculpture you are harming beyond belief. Plus, it is expensive. If you live in Europe, it is the meager allotment of your taxpayer money that goes toward culture that pays for it. In the US, it comes from the conservation department budget, meaning there is almost never any rich sponsor who’s going to commit funds to it.
Your admission ticket will never cover the cost of running a museum, unless museums start to raise their admissions at Disneyland level. So if you wish to deface artworks, at least have the guts to ask your Congressman to raise support for the arts and PAY MORE TAXES, or give a huge donation to the museums you visit. In the 7-figure range, to give you an idea of the costs of keeping history and making it available to the masses.

Do Not Bring In: Food, Beverages And Anything Liquid.

See: bacteria, fungus and grease above. Plus bugs. Yes, fruit flies are not friendly with artworks either. They defecate on them, did you know that?
Yes, we are well aware you are not planning to throw any of these at the artwork. But freak accidents do happen. You may be super clumsy, how can we know? You don’t need to spill things to spread all of the above: touch a bench with your sticky hand, or a wall label, and some invisible monster is going to spread to a beloved 16th century drawing. Frames do not protect artworks from all these things.
Other case in point: did you ever notice these tiny, tiny bugs coming sometimes out of cardboard packages? You know what? They eat paper. And they can come out of your Starbucks cardboard tray too. Bottled water? May seem harmless, but art on paper or wood doesn’t like humidity.

Do Not Bring In Your Umbrella, Dripping Of Otherwise. Same With Backpacks, Ballpoint Pen And Felt Tip Pens.

I know, these ones seem so absurd.

Umbrellas, dripping: you are bringing in moisture and humidity. If it is a rainy day and the museum is crowded (as it always is when it rains), the humidity level can be raised 25% or more. It warps wood objects and damages paper beyond repair. In LA, because it rains so seldom museums almost never enforce this rule, though they should. But in LA, people are too scared to drive to the museum on rainy days, they go to the shopping mall instead. Oh well.

Umbrellas, dry. What’s the problem? It is the same as with backpacks: the way these are carried. People do not pay attention to what’s behind their back.
Just imagine it as the same thing as being on crowded public transportation - hard in LA, I know, but please bear with me.
How many times have you been hit by someone’s backpack or missed being pierced by a pointy umbrella tip casually wedged under someone’s elbow while riding NYC’s public transport system? Yep, you’re starting to understand. Artworks don’t like being hit by bulgy backpacks and pointy metal tips either.

Now the most puzzling of all: why can you bring pencils and only them if you wish to write down notes? Because ballpoint pen marks are impossible to remove from any artworks, and other kind of inks are next to impossible to take off too.
If you have ever gotten ink stains on your clothes, you will understand. Unlike your clothes artworks cannot be sent to the dry cleaners.

Maybe you feel you are a responsible person and you are not going to deface the artworks. I remember Tyler Green grumbling in a post that the Hammer guards should have known he was earnestly doing his job. Hello Tyler, how are the guards supposed to know you are not a vandal? It is not written on your face. Or on anyone’s, really. You would be surprised at the people caught defacing artworks. They don’t all look like psychos or failed artists in search of fame.
I once caught a very respectable looking older lady pointing out at a non-glass-covered Botticelli painting with a ballpoint pen, less than 1 cm from the canvas. She meant well but her eyesight wasn’t what it should have been. Even if you carry liability insurance (most likely, you are European), it won’t cover the loss of that Botticelli.

That’s all for today’s post, but I’ll write later about other conservation/exhibitions common problems, particularly pertaining to contemporary art and which are so frustrating. In the meantime, just be careful and please comply with museum-visiting rules. There are here to make sure you children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have a chance to see the same artworks as you did, in the same great conditions.


Unknown said...

I'm pretty sure I didn't say *exactly* that about the Hammer. Or anyone else. (Let's face it -- at the moment there are plenty of other Hammer-related problems about which to be concerned.) But I definitely think that someone with a pen and a notebook sitting on a bench and quietly writing is not an enemy of art.

BUT... if a guard sees someone with a notebook and a pen and gripes, I think an AICA/press card oughta be enough to earn that person some leeway.

Frenchy but Chic! said...

You are right, if you are indeed Tyler Green you didn't say *exactly* that - and I can't believe you are reading me either! I have a vague memory of the post which may have been about the Comics show.

Anyway, the problem for the guards is: whoever the visitors are, any pen mark anywhere likely means losing their jobs and they are trained not to give any leeway to anybody.
In term of conservation, whatever may endanger an artwork shouldn't be allowed inside the galleries, regardless of the professional identity of the visitor.
Museum staff isn't allowed to bring in pens for example.