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The Science in Art: Safe, Safer, Safest

August 30th, 2016

by Elizabeth Carroll, Collections Care Assistant

Sabine Schaefer, Art Handler, delivers works on paper to Maureen Del Degan, Collections Care Specialist and Elizabeth Carroll (handling matted work of art using cotton gloves)

Sabine Schaefer, Art Handler, delivers works on paper to Maureen Del Degan, Collections Care Specialist and Elizabeth Carroll (handling matted work of art using cotton gloves)

Conservation of fine art can be much more rigorous than often expected. Conservators must be highly skilled in fine art techniques to be able to match the delicate brushstrokes of an 18th-century landscape, and they must also be inquisitive scientists, aware of any chemical reactions that may occur as they mix solvents, and monitor the gallery’s environment. Scientific research and testing is integral to conservation as it helps conservators know what materials to use, what may be happening to an item as its appearance or structure changes, and how to prevent or slow the deterioration of artwork.

This summer, I have the pleasure of working as Collections Care Assistant at the AGO researching topics in preventative conservation. Environmental factors and tools can play a large role in conservation. Light, vibration, temperature, humidity, and visitor’s sticky fingers are just a few of the many agents of deterioration that preventative conservation aims to manage. As a Master of Information student focusing on Archives, I’ve become quite interested in preventative ways to help preserve artifacts and records. If we can control and reduce potential damages to the art, the art can remain on display longer, and conservators will not have to treat the object as often. The object, as a cultural artifact, will also be available longer for the enjoyment of future visitors.

Gloves: The Great Debate

A standard in preventative conservation is using gloves to handle objects. Our hands contain oils that can damage an object, change its colour and degrade its surface. Cotton gloves are the most recognizable tool, yet they are not often used at the AGO. Cotton fibres may catch and tear the art being handled, and the glove itself does not create a complete barrier between the work of art and the oils in one’s hand. Instead, nitrile gloves are often used. Nitrile gloves have become the standard in the conservation community because they create a stronger barrier between the wearer’s skin and the object being handled. They are tear resistant and, ideally, will not leave any residue on the object. Nitrile gloves also offer the user a better sense of touch, which allows for safer handling. Gloves are a very important tool in art conservation, and are used in almost every situation.

Recently, however, conservators have begun to debate whether nitrile gloves are actually safe to use. Some believe that these gloves are causing metals in art to tarnish. This is very concerning as art conservators are tasked with restoring, and preserving art, not contributing to its deterioration. To help improve our knowledge on nitrile gloves, I was asked to research the topic. I found that there are many opinions and possible conclusions based on my survey of the current literature. One theory maintains that traces of sulphur left over from the manufacturing process can still be found on the glove, causing the object to tarnish. Another conclusion based on the literary research is that conservation-safe nitrile gloves are only those labeled accelerant-free, as this type should not contain sulphur. Other avenues in the research suggest that manufacturers have changed their glove formulas, thus gloves that were once safe are no longer advisable to use.

Which of these nitrile gloves is a safer choice for handling art? Colour is not an indicator. Research your options!

Which of these nitrile gloves is a safer choice for handling art? Colour is not an indicator. Research your options!

This dilemma shows that everything that comes into contact with an artifact must be considered and tested for its potential to harm the object, and that constant re-evaluation of products and materials used in conjunction with artwork is a wise approach. Even the seemingly small attributes of a glove can have a large impact on the object being handled and thus careful research is important in all aspects of conservation.

The next step in research is testing theories to see if the hypothesis made through literary reviews hold up. These nitrile gloves also caught the attention of Lisa Imamura, a Master of Art Conservation student at Queen’s University. Imamura began experimenting with commonly used nitrile gloves to see if the hypothesis she made after literary research would be supported. One test method she used was the Oddy test. This is an accelerated corrosion test that looks for corrosive agents in a given material. Small coupons of copper, silver, and lead (Imamura replaced her lead sample with solid sterling silver) are placed in individual air tight containers with a bit of water and whatever material that needs to be tested. The containers are heated to accelerate chemical reactions, reducing the wait time of the experiment. If a metal coupon tarnishes or corrodes, conservators know that the tested object has reacted to the sample. Experiments like Imamura’s can have a significant impact on material and product choices for preventive conservation care.

Though literature research and test results can help make an informed decision, scientifically testing each product or material and their potential applications improves our understanding of the agents of deterioration and their impact on artwork. A seemingly simple tool like a glove can have a lasting negative impact on an object. Conservators must look at all aspects of their work, including the small tools and materials they use that may come into contact with artwork under their care.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


How to conserve Tom Thomson’s “The West Wind” (1917)

August 5th, 2016

by Katharine Whitman (Conservator), Maria Sullivan (Manager, Conservation), and Andrew Hunter (Frederik S. Eaton Curator, Canadian Art)

Figure 1. Tom Thomson, The West Wind, winter 1916–1917, oil on canvas, 120.7 x 137.9 cm, Gift of the Canadian Club of Toronto, 1926 © 2016 Art Gallery of Ontario

(Figure 1) Tom Thomson, The West Wind, winter, 1916–1917, oil on canvas, 120.7 x 137.9 cm, Gift of the Canadian Club of Toronto, 1926 © 2016 Art Gallery of Ontario

Tom Thomson first painted in Algonquin Park in May 1912 and returned there every spring, summer and fall until his death in 1917.  Thomson had a small paintbox containing his paints and brushes, and created numerous small sketches during his visits to the park.  He would then use the sketches to create large oil on canvas paintings in his studio in Toronto in the winter. The piece below, Sketch for “The West Wind”, measures just over 8 x 10 ½ inches and is oil on wood panel.  One can see the quick, confident brushstrokes in the piece, and imagine how quickly the work was created.

Read the rest of this entry »

Under the Light: Preserving Tess Boudreau’s negatives and contact sheets

July 20th, 2016

Tess Boudreau, Joyce Wieland, early 1960s. Gelatin silver print, 35.6 x 27.9 cm. Gift of the artist, 2007. 2006/457 © 2016 Estate of Tess Boudreau

Tess Boudreau, Joyce Wieland, early 1960s. Gelatin silver print, 35.6 x 27.9 cm. Gift of the artist, 2007. 2006/457 © 2016 Estate of Tess Boudreau

Curatorial intern Cat Lachowskyj shares her recent findings made during her work in the AGO Photography Collection. A graduate student at Ryerson University in the Film and Photographic Preservation and Collections Management program (FPPCM), Cat is currently writing her thesis on colonial photographs taken during the Younghusband Mission in Tibet (1903–1904).

What project are you currently working on at the AGO?

I’m working on preserving and organizing a collection of Tess Boudreau’s negatives and contact sheets that comprise one of the AGO Library’s Special Collections. We have a number of her photographs in the permanent Photography Collection, so it’s interesting to also have the negatives and contact sheets that reveal her working process.

Who was Tess Boudreau?

Boudreau has an interesting history, having lived in Nova Scotia, Montreal, and Paris, where she worked for Henri Cartier-Bresson as a caption writer for his photographs. As a skilled darkroom technician, she was able to find work easily in many major cities in Canada and Europe. In 1950 she met her husband, Kryn Taconis, who also had affiliations with Cartier-Bresson through Magnum Photo. The couple eventually left Paris for Amsterdam, and then moved to Toronto where Boudreau worked as a photographer in the arts scene during the 1960s, photographing artists, studios, and events. She passed away in 2007 in Guelph, which is when this collection was gifted to the library.

Catherine Lachowskyj, Curatorial Intern, Photography

Catherine Lachowskyj, Curatorial Intern, Photography

Can you explain the Tess Boudreau project in greater detail?

Because the materials had been stored for some time at the house of one of Boudreau’s friends, unstable temperature and humidity conditions resulted in their curling and warping. I have been working closely with Katy Whitman, our Photography Conservator here at the AGO, to properly house the negatives and flatten the contact prints. I’m also pursuing research on Boudreau’s life and work so that this can be incorporated into a finding aid for the collection. This finding aid will help create links to Boudreau’s prints in the permanent collection.

Tess Boudreau, contact sheet, ca. 1960-1969, gelatin silver print with applied colour, 8.5x11"

Tess Boudreau, contact sheet, ca. 1960-1969, gelatin silver print with applied colour, 8.5×11″

Why might objects like these be useful for scholarly research?

Objects that provide us with more information on a maker’s process and greater context are often the most useful research tools. Negatives and contact sheets can reveal events that were not necessarily deemed important or worthy of a final print at the time of their creation. For example, many of the negatives show work that isn’t found in our permanent collection. By looking at these objects in particular, we can identify attendees of certain gallery events in Toronto in the 1960s, revealing networks and a history of Toronto’s art world that might not be common historical knowledge. The collection can also help us better understand Boudreau’s own artistic practice. Yellow markings on some contact sheets show Boudreau’s process of selecting a particular image to be made into a final print, and further markings indicate her notation method for editing prints in the darkroom.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


Hive Mind

June 18th, 2016

Sherry Phillips, Conservator, Contemporary Art, shares her insights on preparing Pierre Huyghe’s “Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt)” — a statue that contains live beehive — for display during Luminato Festival 2016.

(Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt), 2012, Concrete cast with beehive structure, wax sculpture: 75 x 145 x 45 cm, Beehive dimensions variable, Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Purchased with the assistance of the David Yuile and Mary Elizabeth Hodgson Fund, 2013)

(Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt), 2012, Concrete cast with beehive structure, wax sculpture: 75 x 145 x 45 cm, Beehive dimensions variable, Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Purchased with the assistance of the David Yuile and Mary Elizabeth Hodgson Fund, 2013)

When Kitty Scott, Curator of Contemporary and Modern Art at the AGO first mentioned we would be acquiring Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt) by Pierre Huyghe, I was intrigued. Containing a living system, this sculpture required a new way of thinking, and so began a fascinating and inspiring two-year process to prepare Untilled for its public display in Toronto.

Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Stories: From Vault to Wall

June 6th, 2016

Sherry Phillips, Conservator, Contemporary Art, reveals the behind-the-scenes process of getting artwork out of the vaults and into the gallery.

How does it all begin?

It usually starts with a wish list. A curator will develop an idea for an exhibition and choose artwork or documents they think best explore and explain their concept. That list is then sent to conservators, who evaluate the condition and installation details of each object by heading downstairs… to the vaults!

Descending into “the vaults” sounds incredibly mysterious (and a bit frightening). What’s it like down there?

Well, I’ve been asked on many occasions if the AGO vaults resemble the final scene of the film Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. In some ways, yes they do! We have large rooms filled with racks or shelves that are hung with paintings or stacked with boxes.  One of my favourite things about working at the Gallery is spending quiet time in the vaults, just looking at and thinking about the artwork.  The layers of concepts and expectations about an artist or artwork are almost absent here. Simply by rolling out screens of paintings, I find myself enjoying the works and making unexpected associations with those works nearby — which offer an interesting blend of themes, colours, eras. We also have vaults filled with large wooden crates, stacked almost ceiling high, containing artwork in various stages of assembly. As the contemporary art conservator, many of the objects I look after are stored as separated component parts. And many of the objects haven’t been assessed in several years.

When assessing if an artwork is ready for display, what sorts of questions are you asking?

There are a range of questions, each of which can easily fit into a typical flow chart.  Is it ready to install? If yes, then there is a relatively short path to the gallery space; minor treatment, mount or frame, if any, and scheduling an installation date. If it’s not ready to install, the path of processing the artwork to the gallery space becomes much more complicated, and may not happen at all. Does it need treatment to repair or restore? Is the treatment complicated? Do we have the resources and can it be done in a reasonable amount of time, and in time for the exhibition?

Sometimes the original wish list becomes a much more complicated document, with more questions added than answers. One of the interesting features of contemporary art objects is an artists’ exploration of non-standard materials, like plastics or electrical components. These materials may be the primary material or used in combination with other traditional materials, like wood or paint.  Electrical components for example may need careful evaluation to ensure they meet parameters laid out by the Ontario Electrical Safety Association. Part of my job is to devise how to meet safety standards while honouring the artist’s original intention.

Sherry Phillips at work

Sherry Phillips at work

And what about object research — do you have to check out its history?

Absolutely; and the best way to start is with the object’s record. Every object in the collection has an associated permanent record. Some files are surprisingly scant, maybe a page or two, handwritten or typed several decades ago. (Interestingly, the paper files can be fascinating artifacts containing carbon copies and other types of early copying technologies, old letterheads and charismatic signatures.) There may be a brief note about the object’s condition when acquired or nothing at all. The internet has proven to be a powerful tool to begin the search for more information , but our library and archives, the artist or estate and even oral history gathered from people who knew the artist or artwork when originally installed, are essential to piece together the history of an undocumented artwork.

In conversation over coffee one day, Greg Humeniuk, Curatorial Assistant, recounted a recent visit with the daughter and granddaughter of a prominent Canadian artist about some artworks that were offered to the AGO from an estate. By speaking with the family, Greg learned about the artist’s practice and gained insight into his life and personality — things that aren’t generally discussed in existing literature. Oral history is an invaluable source of information that reinforces the complexity and nuanced nature in all of us. Curatorial and conservation practice in turn benefits from greater insight and new avenues of consideration and presentation.

What are some difficulties you’ve come across when readying artwork for display?

Ensuing conversations with the curators and others members of the installation team may lead to difficult choices — like if we have to substitute one artwork for another already in “exhibition ready” condition. But, at the centre of the discussion is a desire to showcase the best of an artist’s career and the AGO collection. Inclusion on the list may be the first opportunity in a long time to schedule conservation treatment. If one or more artwork must be removed from the wish list however, at the very least we have a much better idea of the current condition, and one or more artworks are added to my long term to-do list.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


Conservation Notes: Resurfacing Large Two Forms

July 30th, 2015

By Lisa Ellis, Conservator, Sculpture and Decorative Arts

Standing at the corner of McCaul and Dundas streets since 1974, Henry Moore’s monumental sculpture Large Two Forms has become an important part of Toronto’s cultural landscape. Scores of school children, families, local residents and out-of-town visitors enjoy sitting in the large void of the northern element, exploring and enjoying the surfaces and forms and now, perhaps more than ever, posing for photographs and selfies with the bronze giant.

Recently, the sculpture has begun to show its age. Those resting in the forms’ voids have inadvertently polished away the original textured surfaces. Pollution and moisture from the air have reacted with what was once a golden-brown surface, most notably on the top of the forms, turning it into a powdery light green corrosion layer. Worrisome stress cracks had opened up across welded joins and in the larger void where many visitors sat or stood for photos.

With generous funding and support from the Henry Moore Foundation, and after much planning and preparation, a small team of AGO staff members spent a month in the summer of 2015 addressing these issues.The treatment plan consisted of repairing stress cracks and attending to the appearance of the sculpture. Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Notes: “I have seen my death!” and the very first X-ray

July 28th, 2015

By Katharine Whitman, Conservator, Photography

(photo at right) U.S. Military,  Operation Priscilla, taken at the moment of the shockwave, 1957.   / Camera Crew at Exact Moment of Shockwave Arrival, Nevada Test Site 1957. Gelatin silver print.

(photo at right) U.S. Military, Operation Priscilla, taken at the moment of the shockwave, 1957. / Camera Crew at Exact Moment of Shockwave Arrival, Nevada Test Site 1957. Gelatin silver print.

There’s something really amazing inside the AGO’s walls right now: a piece of medical history and the forerunner of technology used today. In our exhibition Camera Atomica, visitors can see a positive image of the first X-ray ever made. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, a physics professor in Worzburg, Bavaria, created the gelatine silver glass plate image, what would become known as the first “röntgenogram.” It captures the hand of Röntgen’s wife, Anna Bertha, and her wedding ring (the large dark circle). When she saw the image she is said to have exclaimed, “I have seen my death!” Read the rest of this entry »

Conservation Notes: A case for all types of photos

July 8th, 2015

By Katharine Whitman, Conservator, Photography

 American, mid- to late 19th century (artist), unknown sitter: portrait of woman standing, wearing dark jacket, 1865, ambrotype: sixth plate, case: brown leather with "souvenir" plate, gilt edges and clasp, interior with embossed red velvet pad, 21.12 x 38.55 cm. Anonymous Gift, 2000

American, mid- to late 19th century (artist), unknown sitter: portrait of woman standing, wearing dark jacket, 1865, ambrotype: sixth plate, case: brown leather with “souvenir” plate, gilt edges and clasp, interior with embossed red velvet pad, 21.12 x 38.55 cm. Anonymous Gift, 2000.

Adventures in Photograph Conservation: Cased photos

A photograph can be printed onto almost any surface. While paper is the most common substrate, others include metal, leather, plastic, cloth, canvas and glass, and many of these are represented in the AGO’s photograph collection. This is the first in a series of blog posts that will describe photographic processes and some of the hurdles a photograph conservator has to overcome while working with them. This instalment will cover the more common cased photographs: daguerreotypes, tintypes and ambrotypes. We’ll get to some of the more unique processes, such as the opaltype and pannotype, in another post.

Henry K. Sheldon, Mr. John Shields, Kingston, 1856, daguerreotype, tinted, 50.8 x 44.96 cm. Purchase with assistance of the Photography Curatorial Committee, 2008.

Henry K. Sheldon, Mr. John Shields, Kingston, 1856, daguerreotype, tinted, 50.8 x 44.96 cm. Purchase with assistance of the Photography Curatorial Committee, 2008.

Examples of these processes are often encased in leather-coated wood or sometimes in what were called “Union Cases,” which were made from a thermoplastic material. While some of the cases were larger, most were small enough to be held in one hand: these were precious, portable objects, often lined with silk or velvet, and many times contained the only existing photograph of an individual.

With the introduction of the daguerreotype in 1839 by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851), the dawn of photography, as it related to the public, had arrived. A daguerreotype is a photograph that consists of a mercury amalgam on a silver electroplated copper plate (right). The distinguishing visual characteristics of a daguerreotype are that the image is on a mirror-like surface of metallic silver: it will appear either positive or negative depending on whether a light or dark surface is being reflected in the image. The image was often also coloured with pigments to give it a more life-like cast. As an example of employment following the development of new technology, many of the artists who did this work were former miniature painters. With the introduction of photography in 1839, the demand for hand-painted miniature portraits declined drastically, and so it become common for photographers to have re-touchers and colourers on staff to apply the pigments.

Unknown america or canadian, 19th century (artist), seated woman at table, wearing gloves, 1880s, tintype, tinted highlights, 22.36 x 15.96 cm. Anonymous Gift, 2006.

Unknown American or Canadian, 19th century (artist), seated woman at table, wearing gloves, 1880s, tintype, tinted highlights, 22.36 x 15.96 cm. Anonymous Gift, 2006.

After the daguerreotype’s public introduction and adoption, many scientists started working on other, more economical photographic processes. In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer (1813–1857) introduced the collodion process. Ambrotypes and the tintypes (examples at left) are both collodion-based processes, the former being on glass and the latter on a thin sheet of darkly painted metal, usually tin or a ferrous material. The collodion in these processes is derived from solution of pyroxylin, or gun cotton, dissolved in ether and alcohol. Once coated on a piece of glass or metal, the collodion is sensitized in a solution of silver nitrate and exposed in a camera, and the plate is developed, fixed and allowed to dry. The resulting photograph is then varnished to prevent deterioration of the image. These photographs were much more resilient than daguerreotypes and — though conservators today would warn against it — some people would send their tintypes through the mail without a case, unconcerned about damaging the photograph.


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: Displaying Henryk Ross’s powerful Łódź Ghetto photos

April 30th, 2015

By Katharine Whitman, Conservator, Photography

Henryk Ross, Negative #940 from Lodz Ghetto Collection Series, 1940-1944,  35 mm cellulose nitrate negative, 40.88 x 45.97 cm. Gift from archive of modern conflict, 2007.

Henryk Ross, Negative #940 from Lodz Ghetto Collection Series, 1940-1944, 35 mm cellulose nitrate negative, 40.88 x 45.97 cm. Gift from archive of modern conflict, 2007.

The exhibition Memory Unearthed: The Łódź Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross is rather unique for the AGO in that many different mounting methods are used to represent the powerful imagery of the photographs. It depicts the life in the Łódź Ghetto in German-occupied Poland: a work camp for Jewish and Romani people before they were sent to the Auschwitz and Chelmno concentration camps. We used a variety of display methods in the exhibition—pins, frames, magnets and custom-designed display cases—that work together to create a seamless display of period and modern prints.

New prints made from Ross's negatives, pinned to the wall of the gallery.

New prints made from Ross’s negatives, pinned to the wall of the gallery.

Unlike most exhibitions at the AGO Memory Unearthed includes many modern prints because most of the original images are only available in negative form. The negatives are nitrate-based and cannot be put on display for health and safety reasons. We put them into frozen storage, but before that we scanned them into a database and made new prints for the exhibition. To avoid detracting from the image, we opted to pin them to the walls of the gallery without frames (as above).

Prints sandwiched between Plexiglas.

Prints sandwiched between Plexiglas, with Japanese paper tabs.

This exhibition also includes period gelatin silver photographs, such as a folio of contact prints, identification cards, candid shots and wedding photographs. One of the more complicated mounting challenges we faced was how to minimally present Ross’s folio of contact negative prints safely and gracefully. The goal was to give the impression that the pages were almost floating in the case. To accomplish this, we:

  • affixed the folio pages to clear Plexiglas frames, which were then sandwiched in long sheets of additional Plexiglas;
  • attached Japanese paper tabs along the top edge, connecting the pages to Plexiglas frames;
  • used dry wheat-starch paste, a fully reversible adhesive, to attach the tabs to the folio pages;
  • and used archival double-stick tape to attach the tabs to the Plexiglas frames.

This method was successful, but to give visitors another way to view these important images, they are also projected on the wall near the presentation case in a film format (as in the photo below).

Gelber Gallery, where we are presentign the Ross folio.

Gelber Gallery, where we are presentign the Ross folio.

Learn more about the exhibition Memory Unearthed: The Łódź Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross 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.


Signature Partner of the AGO’s Conservation Program


Conservation Notes: Print on this

February 18th, 2015

carbon transfer 2001.169

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By Katharine Whitman, Conservator, Photographs

Suzy Lake, The Natural Way to Draw, 1975. Colour emulsion transfer on uncoated canvas, 102.5 x 134 cm. Gift of nancy Hushion, 2009. 2009/107. © 2015 Suzy Lake.

Suzy Lake, The Natural Way to Draw, 1975. Colour emulsion transfer on uncoated canvas, 102.5 x 134 cm. Gift of nancy Hushion, 2009. 2009/107. © 2015 Suzy Lake.

Suzy Lake’s The Natural Way to Draw and other interesting photograph supports

Until the relatively recent advent of digital photography, in which many photographs exist solely as pixels on a screen, every photograph was printed. By far, the most common support on which to print has been paper. However, even since the early days of photography, they have also been printed on paper, fabric, metal, glass, ceramic and a host of other surfaces.

And now, with the advent of digital printing technologies, we can print photographs on almost any substrate. They can be ink-jet printed on to canvas, plastic, vinyl or paper: the possibilities are endless. As photograph conservator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I’m fascinated by the wide array of other materials on which photographers and artists have printed their images. Read the rest of this entry »