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Class works to preserve art

By Hallie Jordan     11/5/09 6:00pm

In a rare combination of joining humanities with engineering, Bioengineering Lecturer Matthew Wettergreen joined four students in creating better storage for artwork at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. The collaboration between Rice and the MFAH began when Interim Dean of Humanities Gary Wihl asked the museum's administration about the possibility of collaboration between itself and Rice's engineering department, MFAH Conservation Director Wynne Phelan said.

Most museums, including the MFAH, store art that is not on display in cardboard boxes or wooden crates, MFAH Chief Registrar Julie Bakke said. However, these boxes and crates are problematic for several reasons. Not only does their opacity make it difficult for curators to find the pieces they want to show, but the cardboard and wood emit gases that can damage art, Bakke said.

Prior to Rice's involvement, the MFAH staff had taken a trip to New England to examine the way other museums store their artwork in the hopes of acquiring a better means of art conservation. However, Phelan said they saw that cardboard boxes and wooden crates were the standard everywhere they visited.

After recognizing the need for better storage, the MFAH began to work with Rice humanities and engineering departments to take on the task.

Twenty-seven students applied last spring for four spots to participate in a new program to achieve such measures, called Engineering Design for Arts and Artifact Conservation, Hanszen College senior and project participant Kristi Day said.

The students selected for EDAAC were Caleb Brown, a bioengineering and visual and dramatic arts major; Rhodes Coffey, a mechanical engineering major; Kristi Day, a civil engineering major; and Nicole Garcia, a chemical engineering major.

Starting with a trip to the MFAH, the students spent the summer working on their design project.

In addition to studying methods at the MFAH, the students also did extensive art conservation research on their own, Day said.

After these examinations, the students began brainstorming. Wettergreen gave each student 100 note cards and asked them to write one idea on each card in one hour's time, Day said. The group then worked together to finalize their ideas and picked the best seven to share with the museum.

Following discussion with the museum, the MFAH showed the group 20 pieces they could choose to specifically work with. The students chose a total of five pieces, one for each student to individually create a container for and one piece to design a container for as a group.

Though four of the five boxes designed are currently undergoing minor modifications, the museum hopes to have at least one storage room filled with the containers, Bakke said.

"The students were incredible - they had nine weeks to come up with concepts," Bakke said.

Day designed her project for "La Sordidez," a large statue of a lizard.

All of the boxes were made for three-dimensional objects since the museum already has a means of storing paintings, Day said.

To evaluate their prototypes, the group utilized an engineering process called PUGH analysis, which examines the pros and cons of each design.

The final products for all boxes were made with interchangeable parts, mostly plexiglass and stainless steel rods designed to not emit gases which could harm the art. The group aimed to use parts that could be adjusted to store artwork beyond the piece the container was designed to hold.

For instance, the containers need not have four sides, as the museum is climate controlled so air exposure will not hurt the pieces. The boxes are affixed with "elbows" on the corners so that the rods may be attached at differing angles, depending on the shape of the piece.

The MFAH intends to carry this project into the future.

"We hope this will become a universal standard," Phelan said. "We are at the beginning of something that I think is rejuvenating for us."

Wettergreen is currently teaching a class, ENGI 240: Engineering Art Conservation, on art conservation to continue to try to turn the box designs into prototypes.

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