The Polar Museum has almost 3000 artworks including masterpieces by Edward Wilson and David Smith. The majority of these are unframed and kept in dark storage. However, we do also have some framed artworks which we keep in compact mobile racking in the store:
The framed art is hung on grids with hooks, which keeps the pictures from banging into each other and damaging the frames.
A lot of these works are oil and acrylic paintings, but a recent audit showed that there were also quite a lot of engravings and other works of art on paper, framed and hanging in the mobile racking. These works are much more light sensitive than the oil paintings and really should be kept in the dark as much as possible.
Another problem is that some of the frames are really old and might actually disintegrate and fall off the racking, which would be bad for the pictures, to say the least! Here is a very dodgy looking screw fixing on the back of one picture:
And the paper tape around the back is sometimes so old it just crumbles away:
Our recent risk assessment, carried out with the help of colleagues from the UCM, showed that tackling these problems should be a conservation priority. So we have started a project to improve things for the vulnerable artworks by taking them out of their frames and finding better homes for them in dark archival boxes. It is simple but satisfying work, especially when it is obvious that the artworks will immediately be better off out of their frames. For example, this looks like a piece of plywood:
But actually it is the back of a paper artwork (a lithograph) showing birds! If you look closely you can even see the “ghosts” of two birds in the wood grain pattern on the paper. The front of the picture looks like this:
Unusually, the framer put the wooden back of the frame directly over the paper rather than using a cardboard mount, and the acid in the wood has discoloured the artwork on the back. Over time this would eventually penetrate through to the front and ruin the image. Already the acid damage has made the paper rather yellow and unusually brittle.
Some frames are beyond saving, but many of them are kept in the attic so we can re-unite the frame and artwork in the future if we want to. This is especially important for original paintings and drawings where the artist themselves chose the frame.
We keep the frames in tough padded bags called Stiffy Bags, which we order in various sizes. You can see from the size of the Stiffy Bag delivery that I will be deframing art and packing frames for quite some time!