The conservators protecting some of our most valuable Indigenous art from tropical troubles
Lisa Nolan and Carolyn McLennan keep priceless Indigenous art in good shape. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) houses some of the nation’s most significant Indigenous art.
Within its 30,000-piece collection, mostly secured behind large steel doors, are works from early Papunya artists in a fragile condition.
In the vault-like storage rooms, conservator Lisa Nolan can open a storage drawer at random and find an original watercolour by the late Albert Namatjira.
“We’re bursting at the seams, you could say,” she said.
Storing such huge and precious collections in the tropics also poses great challenges, including mould, bugs, humidity and cyclones.
A conservator’s toolbox
About one third of conservators’ work at the museum is treatment, while the remaining work is preventative.
Freelance conservator Carolyn McLennan said a lot of the work they did could also be applied to protecting artwork around the home.
The tools of the conservators’ trade include brushes, gloves and fine instruments. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
Protecting art from the wet begins in the dry season, when dust is in the air.
“We’re kind of like the brush-vacuuming queens,” Ms McLennan said, holding up the toolkit used to remove dust from canvas.
Soft-bristle brushes or a microfibre cloth can also be used to clear away dust which can later turn into mould.
“We don’t want to cause any damage — it’s about preventing the dust,” Ms Nolan said.
Another challenge is dealing with the pests that lay eggs in dark, wet areas.
“We like to put a backing on the back of a painting so that nothing can get in there such as geckos, cockroaches and their eggs,” Ms Nolan told ABC Radio Darwin’s Jess Ong.
“We are constantly monitoring,” Ms McLennan added.
“It’s these things about monitoring that you need to bring into your home.”
The museum’s collection houses work from early Papunya artists in its vast storage vault. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
Catch mould before it goes black
As humidity rises in the wet season, the dust becomes material on which mould can grow.
Anyone who has lived through a heavy wet season will be familiar with discovering patches of it on leather, clothing and, in some cases, art.
“Water builds up within anything that’s hygroscopic [able to absorb moisture from the air],” Ms Nolan said.
“Anything kind of organic takes on the dust and then the water goes on to the surface and it starts to grow the mould.”
Taking a proactive approach is key.
The museum uses large dehumidifiers to moderate the conditions works are stored in. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
“Usually if [the mould] goes to black, you’ve got no hope,” Ms Nolan said.
“It’s very difficult to remove because it goes into the matrix of the actual substrate of the object.”
Keeping art in the tropics
- Turn the air conditioner off but leave the fans on where possible — good airflow prevents the growth of mould.
- Clean your fan so it doesn’t spread dust.
- Add a backing to canvases or frames.
- Hang works away from windows where possible — they’ll be further from moisture.
- Brush dry mould with a soft or medium-bristle brush where appropriate.
- Wet mould may be treated with methylated spirits but consult a conservator first.
In some cases, using products to clean mould from fragile objects will do more damage than good.
But large dehumidifiers are used to keep moisture levels in the museum down in the first instance, and smaller scale ones may suit the home.
There are other tricks in placement.
“We make sure we’ve got good airflow, so having paintings away from the wall, with spaces, so that airflow can get behind them — not putting things into little corners.”
Lessons from Cyclone Tracy
The museum learnt many of these tactics the hard way after Cyclone Tracy demolished its building in 1974, leaving many valuable works wet and a number of broken Pukumani poles strewn through the streets.
The conservators meticulously document any damage to items in the museum’s collection. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
Since then, the institution has refined its tactics from the ground up.
The building has protection in its design, with artwork stores built in the centre of the museum so they’d be the last affected if a cyclone tore through.
Other disasters that weather has thrown in their direction — such as an air conditioner leaking on a painted sculpture in a regional museum, or valuable works getting covered in dust during their voyage to MAGNT — have let them refine their techniques.
“I know everyone, at some stage, has had some tragic event. You can observe that and learn from that,” Ms McLennan said.
“We can’t hold onto things forever.”
The museum’s collection houses 1.2 million natural history specimens and 30,000 items of art and material culture. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)
When a historically significant piece of work gets wet, do their hearts skip a beat?
“No, we don’t freak out,” Ms McLennan said.