Giant ovens, tiny cotton swabs and more ways to keep art safe

In this episode of Yinzer Backstage Pass, we head to the Carnegie Museum of Art for a visit to the Conservation Lab.

I thought I knew a thing of two about art conservation but it turns out I was all wrong. I had always imagined that an art conservator’s job had to do with repairing old paintings, but when I met up with Mary Wilcop, an object conservator at the Oakland museum, she set me straight. While she does occasionally work with older pieces, most of her recent work has had to do with the museum’s 58th Carnegie International.

Wilcop says that many contemporary artists are forgoing classic art materials — clay, paint, canvas — for materials found in nature, big box stores or even in the trash. In this edition of the Carnegie International, there are works that integrate chicken bones, gourds, fermenting beans, rose petals and other nontraditional mediums.

When objects like these are brought into the museum, Wilcop’s job is twofold. She has to make sure that the art pieces are in a stable condition and will stay intact throughout the run of the show (unless they’re supposed to degrade, which is the case for some pieces).

She also has to make sure that no hazardous materials come into the museum along with these objects. One art piece includes puppets made of chicken bones and Wilcop had to come up with a way to ensure that no potentially dangerous microscopic critters were living in those poultry remnants. In some cases, she even collaborates with artists.

After learning all about conservation from Wilcop, I was excited to walk through the exhibition again and look at all the pieces through this new lens. Suddenly, all these tree branches and piles of soil were potential hazards. But I wasn’t worried. Wilcop is on top of it.

If you want more Yinzer Backstage Pass, check out our visit to WQED where we toured their historic studio, once home to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”