Mediating curatorial and conservation priorities in physical library displays

February 24, 2017
Helen & Newton Harrison "Becoming Artists" exhibit case

As the person who serves as the liaison between exhibit “curators” (exhibit content selectors—variously students, donors, faculty, and fellow library staff) and the conservation team, I often find myself navigating the terrain between a curator’s vision for a show and the realities of protecting materials from damage. My job is to midwife the ideas presented by content creators and bring them into the world of the gallery in as creative and revealing a way possible. Often it involves negotiating between competing priorities and points of view: curatorial ambitions and desires on the one hand and protecting library resources on the other. A couple of somewhat fictionalized conversations from planning the current Terraforming exhibit in Green Library, which draws on the Helen and Newton Harrison Papers, illustrate the process.

Meyer lemon tree

Conversation in summer 2016, during planning of the winter 2017 show

Curator: This show, Terraforming: Art and Engineering in the Sacramento Watershed, is about earth and water, from art, sustainable agriculture, and civil engineering points of view. Can we build a growing wall in the middle of the Rotunda, or create planter boxes of drought-tolerant plants to replace the cut flowers on the table? You know that living wall they have at the new SFMOMA? What if we did something like that, with plants from the Harrisons’ Sagehen site? The manager of that project is willing to help us.

Me: I love that idea! How cool—and appropriate—would that be? It would bring the concept out of the cases and into the gallery in a relevant and instructive way! But first I’ll have to run it by a couple of people . . .

Conservator: Uh, bugs! All kinds of book-devouring beasties live in dirt and plants. This is a No, I’m afraid. It would be a conservation disaster.

Me to curator: Sorry, I checked it out, and no can do!

Curator: Back to square one. How about tall clear cylinders of packed earth, layered to show soil structure, compaction, and erosion potential? We could deposit them in the corners of the Rotunda to reference the gravel and soil testing that the Army Corps of Engineers did prior to construction of the Folsom Dam.

Me: Also a cool idea! Let me look in to it. Hmm. Large vials in a busy public space. Earthquake country. Maybe not so safe. We’d need to secure them somehow—and be careful not to damage the floor. And we’d probably have to do some floor load tests.

Conservator: And be sure they’re hermetically sealed!

Me: Okay, let’s think some more about this.

Curator: Could we do citrus maybe? Just one tree? A live citrus tree would make an apt centerpiece, referencing both the history of irrigating California’s citrus crops and, in a small way, the Harrisons’ work “Portable Orchard” that we’re showing on the art side of the gallery.

Me: Great idea (though a dead uprooted almond tree might also be appropriate . . . I wonder where we could get one?) Let me vet that with Conservation.

Conservator: Any live plant will carry insect-infestation potential. Moisture, soil . . . hatching things? Please!

Me: Come on, it’s just a sweet little lemon tree! What about the flowers, and the food we serve at receptions and other library events?

Conservator: Ahem, I’ve been meaning to talk with you about that. I can’t recommend the live tree, but there may be ways to mitigate the risks. You could keep an eye on it, check it thoroughly every day for bugs, and get it out of there at the first sign of infestation.

Me: Okay, I promise to keep a close eye on it.

Curator: Yay!

Facsimile slides of paintings by Newton Harrison

Conversation in late fall 2016, just before the winter closure

Curator: These paintings that Newton did in the 1960s belong in the first case on the art side of the show, where we talk about Helen and Newton Harrison as emerging artists. The archive doesn’t include the paintings themselves, but these two-and-a-quarter-inch vintage color slides of them are really great! Of course, they could be scanned and printed. But somehow, showing small prints of these huge paintings just doesn’t do them justice. Newton is adamant that his and Helen’s work is not an illustration, and I think we should honor that if we can.

Me: Agreed. So, since we can’t show the original paintings, what would you think of highlighting the physicality of the archives and showing the slides themselves?

Curator: Yes!

Me: I could build a tiny individual light box for each slide out of two-ply museum board. But hmmm. They’d need to be backlit. And there’s no access to power in the display vitrine. How could we illuminate them?

Curator: You know those LED tea lights? I have a bunch of those at home. I’ll bring them in tomorrow.

Me: Swell! Let’s try them out—I bet they’ll work with a diffuser layer between the bulb and the slide. But let me also check with Conservation . . .

Conservator: I agree this would be really cool. But I have bad news for you: the color in those slides is SUPER fugitive! I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t show them. They’ll fade. Look at them, they’ve already faded! Color images degrade over time, and exposure to light will hasten the process.

Me: Bummer. I suppose I could make facsimiles of those slides from digital images. By printing the transparency part of the image to transparent media, and the framing to paper, then mounting the printed frames to 2-ply board, cutting out the opening, and affixing the trimmed transparency copy into the facsimile frame from the back, using super-skinny double-stick tape.

Conservator: Rad idea! That kinda sounds like fun.

Me: Doesn’t it? Hey, what are you doing over the winter break?