Hurricane Sandy and the future plight of US museum collections

As we all know, Hurricane Sandy has left an extraordinary amount of damage and suffering in its wake. After a little more than a week, 110 people in the US are dead (with another 67 dead in the Caribbean and 2 in Canada), 350,000 in New York are still without power, and there is thought to be between $15-20 billion in damage. In the midst of all of this human (and animal) suffering at hand, everyone is understandably more concerned with working towards the safety and preservation of life. However, when power is restored, homes repaired, and lives made somewhat whole again, attention will likely turn towards more “abstract” concerns.

Flood damage in the (unfinished) 9/11 Memorial Museum
(Source)

I saw a couple stories over the weekend about how flooding in New York City affected cultural institutions. In the first story, Anderson Cooper interviewed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as they toured the 9/11 Memorial Museum site. The museum, which is mostly underground (and thankfully still empty) flooded with around 200 million gallons of water. It was roughly 5 feet deep. Another story on Bloomberg Businessweek drew attention to the millions of dollars of damage and loss of art after the basements of artists’ studios and galleries flooded (I should note that the first story I read was on CNN, but the link appears to be broken). A massive conservation triage-type effort is underway to halt further damage to works that can still be saved– indeed, conservators in the area are absolutely inundated with work– though some were simply damaged beyond repair (or the money it would take to repair and restore it would be more than the piece is worth).

There is a lot of buzz about how this storm has really brought attention to the fact that climate change is starting to manifest in more noticeable (i.e. highly destructive) ways. Sandy was literally a perfect storm of events: a hurricane + a cold front + high tides. In another article on ArtInfo on the 9/11 Memorial Museum, it talked about how museum planners knew that the museum was built in an area that was susceptible to “100-year floods.” While there was theoretically a 1% chance that the museum could flood every 100 years, the area has seen substantial flooding twice in the last 14 months. Talk of future storms is taking into account increased frequency of so-called 100-year storms and higher sea levels. In other words, the destruction that we saw from Sandy– particularly the flooding– could very likely be the tip of the iceberg of future issues along coastal lines and areas of low elevation, which also happen to be the locations of some of the biggest and most prominent museums in the US.  Continue reading

In “defense” of a hack-job restoration

Elías García Martínez, “Ecce Homo” (c. 1890)
Santuario de N.S. de la Misericordia, Borja, Spain
(Before, during, and after “restoration”)
Source

It is unlikely that there is someone in the art world who has not yet heard this story (indeed, anyone who pays attention to the news has probably heard it, now that this has gone international), but I will still recap: an elderly woman in the town of Borja, Spain, with the permission of her parish, was working around the church to fix things up a bit and took it upon herself to “restore” a 120-year old fresco by local artist Elías García Martínez. “Ecce Homo,” which means “behold the man,” depicts the moment before Jesus was crucified. The fresco was flaking and in desperate need of restoration, so over the course of two years (in full view of others), she scraped off the loose paint and repainted the missing areas. The result is illustrated above, and clearly, things did not turn out so well.

Mr. Bean’s restoration of “Whistler’s Mother” (from the movie “Bean”)
(Source)

I first read this story from a fellow WordPress blogger, Blog of the Courtier (if you click on the Source link under the picture above, you can check out the original post). It was a beautifully sympathetic perspective on how this woman did not know that she was doing something “wrong” in taking on this “restoration” by herself without any formal training, and that everyone makes mistakes. Other stories I have read since then, such as this one on CNN, are more comical and rather harsh: CNN journalists Brad Lendon and Mariano Castillo likened her work to that of the titular character in the movie Bean when he tried to repair “Whistler’s Mother” after using turpentine to clean up the remnants of a sneeze. I have since read– in another post that was also on Blog of the Courtier– that the poor woman has since suffered numerous anxiety attacks due to all of the media coverage, which has mostly been just like CNN’s. Because of my past experience in art conservation, current work in collections management/registration, and scholarly work in art history, I believe that there there are multiple ways that this story can be objectively analyzed that go beyond laughing at what she did to this fresco. Continue reading