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Conservation Notes: Preserving history on nitrate film

August 18th, 2014

By Katharine Whitman, Conservator, Photography

The Henryk Ross collection of negatives depict the Łódź Ghetto in Poland from 1939 to 1944, composing a valuable record of the conditions Jewish people faced during the Second World War. As with all film negatives from that period, they are on cellulose nitrate stock, a potentially dangerous medium due to the material’s tendency to release harmful gases when it degrades. Steps had to be taken to stop the deterioration of the negatives, and so they were recently digitally copied and put into frozen storage at the AGO.

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Conservation Notes: Looking at ephemera in Betty Goodwin’s notebooks

August 11th, 2014


Click arrows to see inside the notebooks.

Betty Goodwin’s notebooks and sketchbooks are both interesting documents of the artist’s process and important objects in their own right, offering insight into her daily life and art practice. The term “ephemera” refers to documents or items that were not necessarily meant to last long and are often made of materials that deteriorate quickly. The ephemera found in Goodwin’s notes comprise a variety of materials, including sticky notes, banana stickers, instant photographs, newspaper articles and pressed flowers. Making sure the sketchbooks are preserved in the exact condition that Goodwin left them, with ephemeral items intact where Goodwin placed them, allows researchers to see the artist’s thoughts on her own works.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s Goodwin, with the help of one of her studio assistants, revisited a number of her sketchbooks from the earlier days of her career, using sticky notes and metal clips to mark key pages, some of which date back to the 1960s. Some sketchbooks have pages that have been removed, with photocopies pasted back in their place, and some of these copied pages even re-appear in later sketchbooks, stuck onto pages or tucked in as loose leaves in agendas or diaries. Maintaining these re-arrangements, along with clips and the sticky notes, lets researchers see which of Goodwin’s own entries, sketches or notes she considered important.

The temporary nature of various ephemeral elements presents some challenges to conservation: the low-tack glue of sticky notes makes them vulnerable to detaching and metal clips will rust. However, each of the individually created enclosures made by Digital Special Collections Assistant Marianne Williams securely contains the ephemera in each volume and ensures no materials or information will be lost. Read about those here.


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If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


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Conservation Notes: Artist Betty Goodwin’s thoughts on paper

July 28th, 2014

Marianne at work in the studio

Marianne at work in the studio


As Digital Special Collections Assistant in the AGO Library and Archives this summer, Marianne Williams is building new enclosures to preserve decades’ worth of sketchbooks and notebooks of the late Montreal-based artist Betty Goodwin.

Goodwin bequeathed more than 100 sketchbooks, notebooks, agendas and diaries to the AGO. Many of them were featured in the Gallery’s 2010/2011 exhibition Work Notes, which showcased Goodwin’s artistic practice and process. Once off display, the books were wrapped in acid-free tissue as a temporary storage measure, as seen above.


Click through slideshow to see all the steps

The first step in creating a new enclosure is measuring the dimensions of the notebook to the millimetre and then creating a custom-made box from archival-quality materials to house the book. Using these materials protects the notebook from acid normally found in paper materials that can yellow and deteriorate over time, causing brittleness and increased risk of damage.

The customized box, called an enclosure, is then labelled and tied together with cotton tape in order to secure all of the flaps. This protects the books from shifting around when being handled, prevents scratches or rips and ensures that any loose materials, like pressed flowers or loose leaves of paper, stay snug in their original places.

The individual book enclosures are then placed in larger boxes for storage in the AGO Library and Archives vault.

The re-housed notebooks will be kept in the AGO’s Edward P. Taylor Library and Archives, where curators and other researchers will have access to them to study and examine in the future.


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


Conservation Notes: Simon Starling’s Infestation Piece: Musseled Moore

April 22nd, 2014

In this video AGO conservator of Contemporary and Inuit Art Sherry Phillips explains the work she’s doing with U.K. artist Simon Starling’s Infestation Piece: Musseled Moore, part of the AGO’s collection of contemporary art, and the artist discusses how it is aging. For background on Musseled Moore, watch the video below as Starling discusses the creation of this aquacultural work.


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


Conservation Notes: Kress Fellow Tessa Thomas and posters of the Belle Époque

March 19th, 2014

Tessa Thomas and a Toulouse-Lautrec poster.

Tessa Thomas and a Toulouse-Lautrec poster.

The Samuel H. Kress Foundation provides yearly grants to cultural heritage institutions to support a conservation training fellowship; only nine awards for Kress Conservation Fellowships were presented for the 2013/2014 year and the AGO is pleased that the foundation selected us to receive a grant. Maria Sullivan, manager of Conservation at the AGO, calls the fellowship for emerging conservators — administered by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation — “a unique opportunity for the AGO and for conservation training in Canada.”

“Having a Kress Fellow here in the AGO Paper Conservation Lab is such a wonderful way to engage with our fabulous collection, with dynamic discussion and sharing of conservation principles and techniques within a large collecting institution,” says Joan Weir, the AGO’s conservator, Works on Paper. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Notes: Safety first!

January 24th, 2014

An extractor unit keeps Conservation manager Maria Sullivan safe from solvent vapours.

An extractor unit keeps Conservation manager Maria Sullivan safe from solvent vapours.

By Maria Sullivan, Manager of Conservation

In the AGO Conservation Department, we’re always concerned about the condition of the artwork… but of course we’re very careful about our own health and safety, too.

Visitors to our labs often wonder about the long contraptions that resemble elephant trunks dangling from the ceiling. We do often call them trunks, but they are, in fact, extraction units that we use when working with small amounts of solvents. When the units are on, the trunks suck air away from the working area so that the conservator isn’t exposed to the solvent vapours. We always consult our material safety data sheets (MSDSs) to understand the materials we’re using and what protective measures are needed. We also try to use less toxic materials whenever possible. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Notes: Insider’s look at a prayer bead

December 18th, 2013


Credit: Prayer Bead, The Thomson Collection at the AGO, 29365. Courtesy of The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario, Sustainable Archaeology at the University of Western Ontario, 2012, and Eric Fournier, Chief Technology Officer, ORS Visual.

In a previous Conservation Notes post we introduced you to work that Lisa Ellis, conservator of sculpture and decorative art, and Sasha Suda, associate curator of European Art, were doing to learn more about prayer beads from the Thomson Collection of European Art here at the AGO. Working with colleagues from the University of Western Ontario, Ellis and Suda used micro tomography (microCT) to better understand prayer beads and how they were constructed.

This time, to create the image above, the Sustainable Archaeology (SA) facility in the Department of Anthropology at Western University, in London, Ont., provided scans using a Nikon Metrology XT 225 microCT scanner.

The video slices through the exterior shell of a 16th-century Northern European wooden microcarving to reveal an intricate interior showing the Last Judgement. The microCT data set has been manipulated with ORS Visual, a program produced by a Montreal-based company. This software transforms the microCT data, which is based on X-ray images, into the comprehensible, animated scenes shown here.


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


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Conservation Notes: Tea with Diane Borsato

November 18th, 2013

By Sherry Phillips, Conservator of Contemporary and Inuit Art

One of the six bone porcelain tea cups, English, dated approx. 1822-30.

One of the six bone porcelain tea cups, English, dated approx. 1822-30.

Tea Service (Conservators will wash the dishes)

Early 19th-century tea cups were temporarily removed from the AGO’s collection in order to be used for tea tastings by museum staff. Together, a group of conservators, a registrar, an interpretive planner, a curator, an artist and an art critic drank out of the re-animated cups, experiencing them through all of their senses and through shared conversation.

Three types of tea were served: Bai Hao Yin Zhen white tea (China), Tung Ting oolong (Taiwan) and a dark, 2001 Lahu Wild Trees 1,000-year-old Pu-erh (China). Before and after the action, a museum conservator washed the dishes. The action was documented by photography.

—Diane Borsato

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Conservation Notes: Don’t spill the Beans

September 16th, 2013

Beans, 2000. Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg. Overall: 43 x 33 x 35 cm (16 15/16 x 13 x 13 3/4 in.), polymer clay, wax, kraft paper, plastic. Purchased with financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance program and with the assistance of the E. Wallace Fund, 2001

Beans, 2000. Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg. Overall: 43 x 33 x 35 cm (16 15/16 x 13 x 13 3/4 in.), polymer clay, wax, kraft paper, plastic. Purchased with financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance program and with the assistance of the E. Wallace Fund, 2001

An example of packing and crating at the AGO

By Sherry Phillips, conservator of Contemporary and Inuit Art

Hendrika Sonnenberg and Chris Hanson’s artwork Beans is a large quantity of double-bagged, handmade kidney beans crafted of polymer clay, an artwork that sits quietly on a gallery floor when installed. The piece is fairly heavy but well balanced if installed correctly. However, the paper bag and handles of the plastic bag are not strong enough to be used to lift the artwork. Fortunately, the materials used to make the bags are still robust enough to contain the loose beans.

We received a loan request from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia about a year ago to include Beans in the upcoming exhibition Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg: The Way Things Are, running Oct. 25, 2013, to Jan. 26, 2014.

The assessment-for-loan process began with a conservation report on condition, to determine if it’s fit to travel, and a consideration of installation plans and schedules here at the Gallery, to make sure we don’t have plans to install the artwork over the course of the loan request. After we confirmed our support of the loan, we needed to determine how best to transport, handle and install the artwork. Knowing that the paper and plastic bags should not and could not be expected to support the weight of the piece during a lift, I devised yet another bag to contain the artwork and chose materials that would not damage the artwork now or into the future. It can be used to handle, transport and store the artwork, and it’s modelled on the familiar, reusable canvas shopping bag. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Notes: Magic numbers and dongles

September 9th, 2013

Part four of a series on the conservation of Max Dean’s As Yet Untitled. Get up to speed on the project.

transfer 141_smaller

By Sherry Phillips, conservator of Contemporary and Inuit Art

This week, we sent off As Yet Untitled to VOX, Centre de l’image contemporaine, where it will be included in Le Mois de la Photo à Montreal, running Sept. 5 to Oct. 5, 2013. It was a hectic week leading up to packing the installation, and every day that we ran the robot program we learned something new: usually something quirky, possibly undesirable, but something that had to be addressed nevertheless.

There is a certain amount of imprecision in programming and teaching the robot. Much of the process is trial and error and repetition and running out to the local electronics store for supplies (see below). We spent long hours simply turning the control unit off and on, repeating robot actions by manually moving the arm back to its zero point, testing alignment marks, and watching and waiting for discrepancies, anomalies and tics. Once those arose, we began the long process of looking for and correcting the potential source of the problem, which could be as simple as a misplaced period within a line of code.

transfer 153-smaller

As Yet Untitled is time-based media and performance art. We needed to patiently teach it how to move through its performance by establishing the coordinates for each of its five joints: the shoulder, arm, elbow and two wrists. To get a sense of how it moves, check out another famous Canadian robot, the Canadarm 2, which has an impressive seven joints in all.

I eavesdropped with interest and admiration to the telephone chats between Marcel and Richard, and although they were speaking English, I really never fully understood what they were saying. One conversation was particularly engaging for me as an outsider: this is where I learned about the concept of a “magic number.” It’s kind of a calibration number; it could be zero but may not be, it can show up out of the blue and may have no real meaning, it might be specific to only this robot and can be critical to know in order to calibrate the robot.

On another occasion I accused Marcel and Max of making up the term “dongle” to describe a piece of hardware on the back of the control unit. But it really is a word, probably arbitrary in its coinage (did someone think it was more descriptive than “thingy”?). As it turns out, it refers to a piece of hardware in the computer industry that acts like a key. Without the dongle the program/robot will not run; in this robot’s case, the dongle is attached to the auxiliary emergency-stop switch.

as yet untitled connections (13)

At the conclusion of the loan in Montreal, the robot will return to the AGO. I’ll need to establish a maintenance program and schedule for the robot and the installation’s various components; the arm should be occasionally manipulated, the compressor operated and the conveyor motor occasionally turned to prevent seals from desiccating and leaking. I’ve also requested that some space be found at the Gallery in order to install at least the robot and control unit so we can continue refinements of the program while the process is still fresh in our minds.

One of the most challenging aspects of the project was the identification and, in this case, numerical qualification of the movement in part and in whole — in other words the “performance” of the piece. The robot is capable of subtlety, and its actions should be precisely replicated each cycle, unlike a human performance, when there will be variations between each cycle. We spent many hours discussing and adjusting each joint, especially the wrist joints, where the movement could be most fluid and very delicate. In the end, however, the robot’s performance is still only as good as the information its human programmers can give it.


Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program