Safely Storing Your Art

By Jill Sweetapple, SGA Blog Contributor

Please welcome Tricia Miller, Head Registrar at the Georgia Museum of Art, based at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Georgia Museum of Art

Tricia Miller has a Masters in Art History from the University of South Carolina, with a concentration in what was then called “Applied Art History.” She says her first paid job was as Director of the Stanly County Historic Preservation Commission in Albemarle, North Carolina (now the Stanly County Museum). Along with two other employees, they did everything from exhibition development, to collections management and sometimes even cleaning duties. She says that job taught her the aspects of museum work that she was good at and enjoyed and what aspects she struggled with or did not enjoy. Her next job was as assistant registrar at the Georgia Museum of Art. She moved up the ranks at GMOA to associate registrar and then to head registrar, and has been with GMOA for 22 years.

Miller estimates that approximately 2% of the 17,000-plus objects are on display, which leaves the problem of storing the rest. As she points out, it is not just about public display, but the storage and preservation of holdings for future generations.

“Institutions with some financial resources to put towards storage of art and the space to handle it may want to look into some standard museum quality storage units. Depending on your objects (framed works or sculpture, or even furniture) your basic options are rolling/sliding racks, bins, cabinets, or shelving. For framed objects rolling/sliding racks (for hanging storage) or metal bins (storage units with vertical slots for storing framed works side by side) are your best option. For small sculptures or other objects (pottery, baskets, silver, etc.) museum quality cabinets with slide out drawers are your best option. For larger items like furniture or larger sculptural items, you may consider industrial, powder-coated metal shelving from industrial supply companies.”

If, like so many of us, you have little cash or perhaps even storage limitations, perhaps you can start small:

“Nobody’s art storage is perfect and we all have something we can improve, even in most museums. My mission each year is to take the resources available to me (money, labor, time) and try improve the storage situation for as many objects as I can. It probably won’t ever be totally perfect, but I know I’ve improved the situation for some objects each year. “

Miller suggests using industrial cardboard bin boxes for storage, which can be purchased from industrial supply companies such as Uline or Grainger in various sizes. Line the bottom of the box with another piece of cardboard or foam-core (for extra stability) and place the framed works vertically in the box side by side. A good rule of thumb is, front-to-front and back-to back. The hardware on the back of frames can damage the front of another frame or the surface of a painting, so by placing them back to back you can avoid unnecessary damage. It is also a good idea to place a piece of cardboard between the frames which are face to face to protect them from rubbing against each other. Keep in mind that many framed works together in a box can become heavy and difficult to move, so consider using more numerous smaller bin boxes rather than fewer large ones. If possible, keep the boxes elevated off the floor, if you can do that safely. Also, you may want to cover the open tops with plastic to avoid dust accumulation and it serves as protection in the event of a crisis situation such as a water leak from a pipe. Avoid wrapping the frames in bubble wrap. As it deteriorates over time, bubble wrap will damage the painted or gilded surface of frames, sticking to it or leaving permanent marks in the surface.

Miller shares the following tips for art that you may have hanging or otherwise on display:

  • If possible, avoid hanging art near heating/cooling vents or above water fountains. The direct flow of conditioned air onto a work of art over the years will possibly make it crack or buckle, any source of water is a potential hazard for works of art.
  • Avoid hanging works of art near windows or in areas where they will get direct sunlight. We know the impact of direct sunlight on paper, and it can eventually have an impact on paintings as well.
  • If possible, avoid hanging works of art in places where other objects (furniture in public areas or other items in storage) may be accidentally pushed up against the work of art. Also, think about the height of a person’s head when they are sitting in a chair or on a bench over which a framed work of art might hang.
  • If possible, avoid hanging works of art in areas where food and drink are prepared or served. It is amazing how food and drink particles can travel through the air! Grease can fly, and carbonated drinks have a potentially wide spray factor when opened.
  • If possible, avoid hanging works of art near pipes, fire suppression sprinkler heads, vents or any other source of water or potential condensation. One of the biggest threats to museum collections is not theft, but water.

Some links to bin box choices:

Regularly tour your storage spaces, looking for potential problems. What is the art leaning against, or what is leaning against it? What is around the art and what is moving around it-is it in a main thoroughfare? And, what can you do to mitigate the risks?

One of the biggest risks for paintings in non-museum storage is damage to the surface of the work either by puncture or abrasion from another object. Consider putting paintings in a container, if possible, such as the bin boxes mentioned above. If the object is too large to go in a container, there may be other options. Large paintings can be faced with a piece of cardboard (the size of the frame) and wrapped in plastic. The cardboard provides some protection from impact on the front and the plastic provides overall protection from potential water damage. Before you wrap the painting, take a picture, print it, and tape to the cardboard (under the plastic) so you can identify the object while it is stored. Additionally, a moving blanket over a piece of furniture can provide some level of protection and help to avoid the accidental scrape or mishap.

Many thanks to Tricia Miller for her time and to Hillary Hazel Brown for the building photograph. The Georgia Museum of Art, on the campus of the University of Georgia, is both an academic museum and, since 1982, the official art museum of the state of Georgia. The permanent collection consists of American paintings, primarily 19th- and 20th-century; American, European and Asian works on paper; the Samuel H. Kress Study Collection of Italian Renaissance paintings; and growing collections of southern decorative arts and Asian art.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s