Siukku Nurminen:

Loans at Tate: Eight Weeks Working Period as a Conservator

MOBIUS FELLOW AT TATE, OCTOBER 15–DECEMBER 14, 2015

I work as a Senior Conservator in charge of the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma in Helsinki, Finland. With nearly 30 years of experience in old European, modern international and contemporary art, I’ve been working mainly in the three museum units of the Finnish National Gallery: Kiasma, Ateneum Art Museum and Sinebrychoff Art Museum. Our collections consist of approximately 9,000 works of art in Kiasma, and over 35,000 artworks in the Finnish National Gallery.

As Kiasma is a contemporary art museum, our job is focused on preventive conservation i.e., thinking of the best ways to keep the artworks for the future. For instance, we have to consider the amount of light each piece is exposed to. We focus on storing, packaging, handling, transportation, as well as monitoring the conditions for each phase. We also draw up installation instructions. Every artwork in Kiasma is examined and documented as it arrives; exhibition pieces and borrowed pieces also as they leave. New acquisitions for the collection are examined in a more detailed manner and, if possible, the artist is interviewed for information on the working process and the artist’s intentions, and on techniques and materials used. Contemporary artists often use nontraditional materials and technology, which means that many artworks have little or no conservation precedence.

The Tate + Loans

The Tate is an institution that houses the United Kingdom's national collection of British art, and international modern and contemporary art. It is a network of four art museums: Tate Britain and Tate Modern in London, Tate Liverpool, and Tate St Ives in Cornwall, with a complementary website, Tate Online. The museums share the Tate Collection, which includes nearly 70,000 artworks. Tate Britain also hosts the annual awarding of the Turner Prize.

I spent my fellowship period at the conservation department of Tate Britain, London. In addition to the loans, my tasks included various projects and using diverse conservation methods. I started by acquainting myself with the museum practice, and the database system TMS (The Museum System), which is used in over 800 museums and collections worldwide.

With outgoing loans ranging from Picasso to Pissarro, my job was to determine the exact condition of each work. I studied the existing records and possible condition reports, making sure the documents were updated. The records include diverse facts about the paintings: display requirements, handling and packing instructions, names of the previous conservators examining the artworks, and notes of any changes occurred in the paintings. Other documents, such as photographs and annotated images of the paintings and their frames may also be attached.

Tracking the movements of the artworks and reporting on them is one of the most important practices in the field of conservation, and an internationally agreed procedure.

Selected Projects and Observations

At Tate Liverpool I got to assist in checking out of two exhibitions: Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blind Spots’ and Glenn Ligon’s ‘Encounters and Collisions’. The methods and the ways of documentation were very similar to those we have at our museum. The documentation is done both before and after the exhibition. The documents are then compared with each other, hoping no changes occur. I especially appreciated Tate ́s Condition Report for Loans, which is something I would like to develop for our use at the Finnish National Gallery.

At Tate Britain’s object conservation department we had a chance to try out an Er:YAG laser cleaning tool for testing new possibilities of varnish and overpaint cleaning of paintings and frames. I did preliminary work for the paintings, trying to find suitable solvents for a laser cleaning process. Unfortunately, it was too short a time for me to make any conclusions. No cross-section samples were made to compare how the tested areas looked like before and after, and making microscopic analyses in such a short time was almost impossible. Nevertheless, it was a fantastic chance to test a tool that was originally developed for medical purposes.

I also got to assist Painting Conservator Rebecca Hellen in testing an Osiris Camera, a high-resolution camera for infrared reflectography (IRR). The technology enables seeing beneath the visible layers of paint, uncovering the initial stages of a composition. We used the camera to study John Singer Sargent’s oil painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose from 1885–6. When comparing the painting with the IRR photos, Hellen found some changes the artist had made during the painting process.

For me, one of the most interesting preventive conservation treatments used at Tate was stretcher-bar lining, that hadn’t been regularly utilized at Kiasma. The method involves the addition of a secondary fabric behind the painting, which doesn’t need to be removed from its stretcher. The method provides effective protection against vibration especially for large-scale paintings in transit and handling. After my fellowship we adapted the method to protect our collections paintings at Kiasma as well.

Summary

My fellowship at Tate was a dream come true. As exchange programs are often aimed at younger people, these kinds of fellowships are extremely important. I’m thankful for the opportunity to gain new perspective on my work and to learn new working methods that I can take home with me.

During my fellowship I had a chance to visit several conservation studios and their paintings conservators in London: The National Portrait Gallery and Laura Hinde, The Guildhall Art Gallery and Nancy Wade, and The National Gallery and Hayley Tomlinson. It is always interesting to see how my colleagues work and what kinds of methods and materials they use. All of my hosts generously introduced their ongoing conservation projects, and they were also interested in hearing my opinion.

In November I attended Media in Transition, an international conference hosted by The Getty Conservation Institute, Getty Research Institute and Tate. The aim of the conference was to create inter-disciplinary dialogue about the impact of technological change on an artwork and the growing networks of professionals that are required to support contemporary media art works and their conservation. The event explored how the field is adapting and responding to new forms of artistic practice, and how emerging modes of collaboration between artists, conservators, art historians, technical experts and curators can help advance the field.

I wish to thank the Finnish Institute in London for this invaluable opportunity. With the grant I got a chance to collaborate with conservators in the UK, gaining precious insight into the administration, documentation, hierarchy, storage, loans and everyday life of a larger institution.

Mobius