Public Interaction and Conservation
One aspect of conserving objects is the control of environmental factors that are known to be detrimental. Solutions can be as simple as ensuring objects aren’t displayed in direct sunlight, to as complicated as sophisticated environmental control systems. For objects destined to be displayed in museums or collections, these factors can be largely controlled or dangers mitigated. Objects displayed outdoors lost this advantage, as the weather cannot be controlled. A further danger, and one examined in this blog, exists for those objects displayed in public spaces: the public.
Figure 1. Skateboarder on Curl. <https://blogs.cul.columbia.edu/outdoorsculpture/2014/06/03/abuse-and-preservation-of-public-outdoor-sculpture/ >
Whether the object in question is a monument, sculpture, or some other preserved historical object, people like to interact with it in some way. Dangers posed by the public range from “innocent” gestures such as touching to deliberate acts of vandalism (Ferrari 2014). These objects look large and sturdy, usually covered with a thick coat of paint. Many people simply do not know how fragile they really are. A simple internet search will produce dozens of images of people interacting with these objects, from people skateboarding in colossal sculptures (Figure 1) to kids playing on preserved munitions and weapons (Figures 2 and 3).
Figure 2. Children playing on abandoned Sherman tank, Saipan. < http://www.saipanservices.com/page009.aspx>
Figure 3. Child on preserved torpedo, Last Japanese Command Post, Saipan. < http://www.saipanservices.com/page009.aspx>
There seems to be two distinct schools of thought in the conservation community regarding this. One is the “no-touch” policy. The public is discouraged from touching the objects. Education obviously helps towards this end (such as “do not touch” signs), but other methods might include installing natural barriers such as landscaping and security patrols (Williamstown Art Conservation Center 2009:2). I was surprised to see a sign at the North Carolina Museum of Art’s Rodin Garden that went beyond the usual “do not touch” verbiage and actually explained why we shouldn’t touch the art: that touching the sculptures would remove the wax coating that protects them from the environment.
The other school of thought is that touching these objects is inevitable, that it is one way that the public interacts with them. Instituting no-touch policies might actually have the opposite effect and encourage more touching than normally takes place (Bach 2007). It is important to remember that they are also “not master paintings of the sixteenth century,” (Collens 2007). Sturdily-built sculptures are not going to fall apart if people climb on them, and their surfaces will not be damaged from the oils from fingers. They will be damaged if they are treated like playground equipment, however, and legal liability is a concern if such actions are encouraged (Collens 2007). Finally, some conservators realize that “there’s a need people have to touch something, to engage with it,” (Griswold 2007). Whether it is right or wrong, people engage with public objects in different ways. Over time, these can even become traditions, such as the dressing up of the New York Public Library lion sculptures or the “Make Way for Ducklings” statues in the Boston Public Garden (Figure 4) (Griswold 2007).
Figure 4. “Make Way for Ducklings” statues dressed for Bruins’ Stanley Cup finals series, June 2011. <http://www.boston.com/yourtown/boston/backbay/bbgallery/ducklings_are_cute?pg=2>
Regardless of whether we thing it is right or wrong, justified or illegal, conservators must take public interaction into account when conserving public outdoor objects. Not only do the environmental factors such as weather and animals need to be taken into account, but we must also think about how the public might engage those objects. One way damage might be mitigated is to institute a do-not touch policy and place signs or landscaped barriers around the object. Perhaps a better method can be taken from CRM theory, and engage the public as stakeholders—make them feel connected to and responsible for the well-being of these objects. Either way, care should be taken to ensure that protective coatings that can stand up to the rigors of public interaction.
Bach, Penny. 2007. “Shared Responsibility: A Discussion about the Conservation of Outdoor Sculpture.” Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter 22(2). Accessed February 25, 2015.
Collens, David. 2007. “Shared Responsibility: A Discussion about the Conservation of Outdoor Sculpture.” Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter 22(2). Accessed February 25, 2015.
Ferrari, Roberto. 2014. “Abuse and Preservation of Outdoor Public Sculpture.” Accessed February 25, 2015.
Griswold, John. 2007. “Shared Responsibility: A Discussion about the Conservation of Outdoor Sculpture.” Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter 22(2). Accessed February 25, 2015.
Williamstown Art Conservation Center. 2009. Technical Bulletin: Annual Maintenance Programs for Outdoor Sculpture. Accessed February 25, 2015. http://www.williamstownart.org/techbulletins/images/WAAC%20Outdoor%20sculpture.pdf.