Grime, Dust, and Drips…oh my! A short update from the Steichen Conservation team

If you’ve walked through the Barrel Gallery recently, you might have seen some conservators crawling around. Whether on the floor or on the ladder, the monumental size of Steichen’s mural series, In Exaltation of Flowers, has required some minor acrobatics. The team recently finished the cleaning phase of the treatment process – an essential step to protect the paintings from further degradation and ensure they can be enjoyed to the full extent that their beauty merits.

Cleaning huge paintings with tiny sponges.

You may recall from the short history of the murals that was recently posted that the canvases have been rolled up for over a century. During that time they encountered water damage, dust, dirt, grime, and other indignities that can be found in a storage room. This left the paintings with a significant amount of dust and dirt on their surfaces, which dulled the colors and deadened the sheen of the paint. To remove this disfiguring accumulation, we used special non-abrasive sponges to gently dry clean the surface and reveal the surprisingly fresh surface the paintings still exhibit. In areas of drips from water damage, tiny hand-rolled cotton swabs and a gentle chelating solution were employed.

The aftermath.

After cleaning, the paintings were brighter, more even, and much closer to the appearance Steichen intended them to have. The next phase of treatment includes loss compensation, framing, and preventive measures like backing boards. We’ll describe these processes next week.

Before and after cleaning

 


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