The preservation and study of works of art in the Hirshhorn Museum’s collection is the primary responsibility of the conservators who, along with members of the photography and registrar’s offices, make up the Collection Care and Management Department. Within the conservation lab, specialized activities for the treatment and care of paintings, sculpture, works on paper, and time-based media are performed.
As an aid in treatment and to better understand the artist’s creative methods and materials, conservators closely examine works of art using a variety of technical tools, including stereobinocular microscopes and ultraviolet light. Conservators also use an array of analytical methods to identify underdrawings, pigments, binding media, and coating materials. All treatments involve collaboration with curators, and frequently scientists, to determine the condition of a work of art, guide treatment decisions, and examine the artist’s working methods and procedures. In addition, the conservation lab monitors environmental controls (temperature, relative humidity, and light levels) and advises on travel, packing, and installation requirements.
Conservation began at the Hirshhorn shortly after its founding in 1974, when the works of art in the collection reflected both the tastes of its founder, Joseph H. Hirshhorn, as well as the art being made at the time. From a conservation standpoint, areas of expertise tended to fall into the conventional categories of paintings, sculpture, and works on paper. Outdoor sculpture, a major emphasis from the beginning, largely consisted of bronze, steel, and stone works. Neither photography nor moving-image works of art were extensively collected.
In the early 1980s, the Hirshhorn began to emphasize contemporary art, and the activities of the conservation lab were strongly influenced by that change. The last quarter of the twentieth century and the first years of this century have seen a progression toward materially complex three-dimensional artwork, often large in scale and conceptual in nature. Another change has been an explosion in the production of photography and time-based media, which includes film and video. The processes used in the creation of such works are quickly evolving and, with changes in technology, their stewardship requires a long-term process of migration, reformatting, emulation, and other processes unique to media art.
Since its beginning, the Hirshhorn Museum has been involved with living artists—a legacy of founder Joseph H. Hirshhorn and his personal involvement with the creators of the works he so enthusiastically collected. The conservation lab has always reflected that dynamic, and in 2012 conservators established a regular program of artists’ interviews that help guide preservation decisions. Interviews are archived for future research and study and are made available to the public on the Museum’s website.
As part of its commitment to the dissemination of information, conservators’ research is recorded in conservation reports, presented at public lectures and symposia, and featured in scholarly publications. Research is also advanced and cultivated through the education and training of conservation interns and fellows.
Together, all of these activities make up a preventative conservation program, which seeks to maintain and preserve the collection for future generations.