Virtuality and Materiality: Decision Making in the Treatment of Margel Hinder’s Construction With Perspex Corners (Flight of Birds)

Paul Coleman

Shifting Forms: Temporal Developments in a Material World

Margel Hinder’s Construction with Perspex Corners (Flight of Birds) is a modern abstract assemblage of welded steel bars and Perspex triangles. It is characterised, like much of her work, by strong angular lines and an abstract geometry. The shapes formed by the interrelation of the bars shift and flow as the work rotates (like the flight of birds[1]) around its central hanging fixture and with the changing perspective of the viewer. The ideal rationalist concept of a static, fixed identity is thrown out the window. The work refuses capture. There is no front-facing side, no singular point of return. It is in constant flux. It casts virtual planes that constantly actualise, fluid forms becoming and evolving for interpretation within the eye of the observer. Understanding this temporal, conceptual relation between sculpture>world>observer was essential to appropriate decision making.

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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: The Scenic Route of Decision-Making Process

“Every decision is a moment of madness”*

In his abridged version of ‘Die RiBverklebung’, the author-conservator Winfried Heiber (2003) quoted that very passage at the beginning of his introduction. The simple sentence embodies the ethical deliberation, technical reasoning, and institutional negotiation a conservator makes. A decision-making marathon one has to grow quite the muscle for. Such was the case for this painting, Untitled (Lady with Flowers) by Unknown and part of the Bendigo Art Gallery Collection.

There are countless conservation cautionary tales where a decision may lead to a disastrous outcome. More often than not, these decisions were not borne out of ill-intent, but perhaps from systematic limited access to appropriate resources and knowledge. This is where professional guidelines and ethical discourse of the profession came into play.

And what better example of an ethical pickle to be meditated on other than that of aesthetic treatment? The following sections will explore the layers of deliberations and mitigation strategies made in the treatment of one seemingly unassuming painting.

Step 1: Preliminary Investigation and an Attempt to Know What to Do

Figure 1: Condition overlay of Untitled (Lady with Flowers) by Unknown.
Figure 1: Condition overlay of Unknown, Untitled (Lady with Flowers), Bendigo Art Gallery.

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Capturing ‘Content in the Field’: Philippines

image: La Inmaculada Concepcion Parish Church in Guiuan (Eastern Samar), Philippines
Prepared by: Grace Barrand & Lia Sumichan, Masters Students of the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation
Facilitators: Dr. Nicole Tse, the Grimwade Centre, Robert Balarbar, National Museum Philippines and Guy Custodio, Consultant Artist Restorer

In November 2013, Super Typhoon Haiyan (also internationally known as Typhoon Yolanda) devastated the provinces of Leyte and Samar in the Philippines. The typhoon destroyed numerous structures across the affected areas, including La Inmaculada Concepcion Parish Church in Guiuan (Eastern Samar), which housed culturally significant ceiling paintings, retablos and extensive shell ornamentation from the Guiuan ocean. Due to these significant features, prior to the disaster the Church was declared a National Cultural Treasure under the Philippine Registry of Cultural Properties in 2001, meaning that the heritage management of the Church was under the jurisdiction of the National Museum of the Philippines. The interdisciplinary team of heritage professionals from the National Museum together with local artists and parish community, were tasked with the restoration and conservation of the moveable and immoveable heritage of the Church. Funds for the restoration came from the Philippine government and a grant from the United States Ambassador’s Fund for Culture. This project began in 2014 and continued until July 2019.

As part of the Content in the Field subject led by Dr Nicole Tse, students from the University of Melbourne Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation traveled to Guiuan in July 2019 to support the conservation management of the Church. Across the week, students collaborated with the National Museum and parish community to host a range of preservation related workshops for the Church community in themes such as risk management, dry cleaning techniques and paintings conservation.  Take a look at the Behind the Scenes video to learn more about the workshops and its participants.

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Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) on a Wooden Door and Sea Shells Decoration at the Immaculate Conception Parish, Guiuan, Eastern Samar

Students from the University of Melbourne Saiful Bakhri, Sophie Russell and Mark Barnes, and conservator Dr Nicole Tse with Anna Carlos and Jim Vasquez from the National Museum of the Philippines, conducted Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) on cultural heritage at the Immaculate Conception Parish in Guiuan, Eastern Samar.

RTI and its versatility

Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) developed by Cultural Heritage Imaging is a computational photographic method that records an cultural objects’ surface shape and colour, allowing the interactive re-lighting the objects from any direction. Today’s RTI software can be downloaded from the Cultural Heritage Imaging website.

RTI is a very useful technology for recording objects in high detail. The light from the camera flashing at different angles reveals lines, holes, brush strokes and other details that may not be visible with normal photography. RTI images can make objects look ‘3D’ without the need for 3D modelling software.

Recording cultural objects, paintings and buildings is an important part of maintaining our cultural heritage. This might include writing condition reports, taking photographs or keeping lists. RTI scanning is another way we can record important cultural heritage with high detail. This means we have a digital record of the object that we can safely archive for future use. If the cultural heritage becomes damaged or destroyed, we can use the RTI scan to recreate, rebuild or reconstruct as close as possible to the original. It may even be possible to 3D print smaller objects. RTI scans can also reveal details in craftsmanship, patterns or damage that we cannot see with our eyes alone. Lastly, RTI images are a great way to engage people with cultural heritage, especially if they cannot visit the heritage in person.

Capturing the Wooden Door

The Immaculate Conception Parish in Guiuan, Eastern Samar has several large, carved wooden doors. Unfortunately, flood water caused damage to some of these doors during Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Wooden objects like these are also vulnerable to pests such as termites and mould. In 2018 the National Museum and the Parish decided to create a fibreglass cast of one half of a set of doors from the south western entrance of the church, which local wood carvers Alfredo Menosa and Eric can later use to carve a new door. The door has intricate carvings showing plants, flowers, angels and fish. It was decided to RTI scan the door because as it is made of wood, it sits facing the outside of the church and it is immovable during a natural disaster it is particularly vulnerable to damage.

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Louise Lateau en Extase

By Alexandra Taylor

From the get-go this painting demanded rigorous, round-the-clock TLC. Equally as fascinating as the treatment was the narrative behind the work.

Part One: Treating Louise Lateau en Extase

Consolidation Sandwich

The condition of the work, according to Managing Conservation in Museums, was deemed to be in unacceptable. Upon seeing the painting for the first time, we determined that the following issues required some careful consideration.

  • Active/inactive mould outbreaks across verso and recto
  • Stretcher bars showed signs of bora infestation
  • Severe abrasion to canvas recto had left paint friable and in need of consolidation
  • Two major tears required repair and infilling/inpainting to retain areas of great significance: subject’s face and stigmatic hands
  • Canvas loss at bottom edge needed a canvas fill
  • There was significant paint loss across the entire recto
  • Discolouration across 1/3 painting surface
  • What looked to be a previous tear repair with wax resin needed to be removed
  • Overall surface spotting/staining/dirt

The most immediate threats (mould and bora outbreaks) were eliminated quickly and sufficiently. During this, we were taken aback by the paint loss. Fortunately, we’d prepared for this and had lens tissue pockets in place around the most friable areas. However, the entire recto surface was very fragmentary and further damage seemed inevitable unless consolidation could take place.

Before we could begin, it was necessary for the surface to be made planar. A custom-designed support system had to be inserted beneath the primary support. Our “sandwich” was created from a single layer of blue board with Mylar insert set up against the canvas verso and three layers of recycled foam core cut to shape around jutting keys, held together with cellotape. All material tailored to the exact height of the bars (200mm) fit within the stretcher frame. Japanese tissue bridges adhered from the stretcher bars to the makeshift support held everything in place. Once the wheat starch had set and the support seemed firm, we were able to flip Louise over so that the recto faced upwards, as indicated in the diagram below (note: not to scale).

Once the canvas was planar consolidation could begin. 5g Aquazol 200 resin in 22.5g deionised water and 22.5g isopropanol was prepared. In order for the application to be precise (leaving as little shiny residue on the paint surface as possible) we each chose to work with dental tools under the Grimwade Centre’s Möller-Wedel Stereo Microscope. 10% Aquazol 200 was wicked cleanly beneath the flaking paint, proving to have strong penetrative and adhesive qualities suitable for consolidation.

In the most friable areas the surface tension was reduced by applying 1:1 water to isopropanol. In this instance, a brush soaked the solution up whilst the dental tool took aim. The brush, hairs heavy with the mixture, was placed against the stem of the dental tool enabling the consolidant to dribble down the stem and into the shattered paint. Heat was sometimes applied with a hot spatula (40ºC) through silicone release film in order to plasticise both the Aquazol 200 and the paint layer. Different techniques had to be implemented in the most challenging area around the proper left arm, as demonstrated in the video below.

Video 1: consolidation DT, video no. 1 by Alexandra Taylor 09/03

Part Two: Filling Louise Lateau en Extase

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The Sky is the Limit…ation

by Madeleine Ewing

Part I: First Impressions Last

Welcome to the online conservation treatment diary for the portrait Untitled (Woman and Child). The aim of this blog is to provide an accessible platform through which each stage of the conservation process may be documented and reflected upon. Content will include pre-treatment, during-treatment and post-treatment updates in order to capture real-time problem solving and progress.

So, let’s get started!

Very little is known about the history of Untitled (Woman and Child). It’s currently part of the private teaching collection at the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation and was acquired as an academic donation. The painting has been treated by student conservators at least twice before myself and its condition is fair overall. Other than the losses along three separate tear repairs, the paint layer is stable and the strainer is structurally sound.

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The glass spouted vessel: What is it?

by Karen Thompson

Over the next four blog posts I will take you through the treatment of this unusually shaped little glass vessel.

It arrived in early 2018 for conservation as part of the hands-on ‘Treatment 2 subject. It is was a gift to the Ian Potter Museum of Art (IPMoA) in 2011, and the collection titled it Glass Spouted Vessel.

Image 1: Front of glass vessel

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Memoirs of a Great Jar

By Sholeh Magzub, Student objects conservator completing a Masters in Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

The First Steps: Making Treatment Decisions for an Ancient Egyptian Jar

An integral part of any conservation treatment is the undertaking of a decision-making process which takes into consideration ethical and practical factors. Conservators are often required to balance the needs of the stakeholders, the artist’s intent, and ethical conservation standards throughout the planning and implementation of their treatments.

Within an Australian context, these ethical standards are provided by the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials (AICCM) Code of Ethics and Code of Practice (2002), which delineates a detailed approach for holistic and ethical professional practices of conservation.

As a student conservator at the University of Melbourne, Australia, this code of ethics took a front seat in guiding the treatment plan designed for the conservation of an Egyptian beer jar in the university’s collection.

Figure 1- Four side profiles of the Egyptian jar with pointed base before commencing treatment. Photographs by Sholeh Magzub.

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Can You Be-Leaf It?

by Hannah Stewart

Figure 1: Before Treatment photo of Eustace Leaf in Frame (Alfred William Eustace, Australian Landscape, c.1880. Grainger Museum Collection, 0000.5039)

Embarking on a major treatment is full of excitement and trepidation, especially when working on a painting with such a very unusual support!

My major treatment project is a leaf painted by Alfred William Eustace (c 1870s) belonging to the Grainger Museum. Eustace emigrated to Chiltern in North Eastern Victoria in 1851 and began painting to capture the spirit of the Australian bush. Canvas and paper were not often readily available on the goldfields, so Eustace turned to large juvenile white box gum leaves. It is not unheard of for artists to paint on leaves, but while that was often a departure from the norm.

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There’s a Chair in There – Determining Age through Materials and Typology

Ladder-back chair purchased by Rose Grainger while living in London (1901-1914). Grainger Museum Collection, 01.0126

by Jessie Gray


The ladder back chair, an artefact from the Grainger museum, came with very little information about its history and materials. The 1909-1914 date given to the object relates to its acquisition by Rose Grainger, correlating to the period when she was living in London. The chair’s label may have offered more information but unfortunately it is scratched and not completely legible.

Conservation specialist Robin Hodgson examined the chair and assessed it as being made in England, due to the use of English oak in the manufacturing of the frame. She also gave a rough manufacture date of 1830’s, citing typology and material use. With further research, I was able to compile material and typological evidence that supported her view.

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Number of posts found: 18