Hi! The Whitney Museum has over 19,000 artworks in our permanent collection. We have pieces dating from the 1900’s to the present, with tremendous variety from the most recent works to the Museum’s oldest. Working to preserve these pieces over time and preserve their original condition is challenging. Some works are easily damaged, cracked or discolored by factors such as light, temperature, and human touch. The Whitney Museum has a conservation department that specializes in their very thing — preserving these valuable works of art.
Here, located on the Museum’s fourth floor is the small, often overlooked conservation lab. Today we’re here to meet with conservator Matthew Skopek to ask him a few questions and check out what he does.
F: So, look at these tools you have in this room! So can you share with me a little bit some tool that you use more often than others? Do you have a favorite tool that you like to use?
M: Well, the very first thing that I do, I guess, well—my eyes. I mean so that’s what it’s about. I mean, so when I look at something I try to assess what the condition is. I mean that’s the very first thing you do when you’re deciding whether you need to treat something or whether it’s OK to go out as it is. So, I look at this, I immediately see there’s in-painting that needs to be adjusted. I find the varnish that the person applied to be not so—it’s too glossy. It doesn’t have a nice feel to it. So I know these are things that I think should be changed before this piece goes on view.
F: Can you show us an example of what you might do?
M: So, then the next step would be to determine: is it dirty? For that we actually use saliva. Like that, and then…So, I mean this piece is not very dirty. I don’t see a lot of dirt that comes up. But that would be…
F: Can you talk about why you use saliva? I mean it seems so…I’m kind of blown away by that.
M: Yeah, well it’s a very effective, but very mild cleaning agent. So it has the advantage over regular water in that its slightly warm from your body. It has enzymes and chelating agents and other things in it that helps your body break down the food you put in your mouth. Those same things help break down the oil and grease and other things that may have deposited on the surface of the painting. So, its slightly more effective than just using plain water. So it’s a good initial—it’s easy, we carry it with us.
F: Oh wow, interesting.
M: So, something that would help me determine how extensive the in-painting is—when we in-paint we use—we don’t use oil paint, we use very specific paints that are made for conservation. And they have a different florescence in ultraviolet so… This is a small handheld light that shows ultraviolet. I’ll turn off the overhead lights so we can see. I can show… That should be enough, We’ll be able to see. So see that area has a very different florescence in this particular light. So I can, I can know exactly what I’m getting into if I decide to take off the varnish and take off the in-painting I have an idea of how much I have to put back. This one has a little bit more even — you can see in the sky. So again another, when I’m first examining, before I start determining the course of treatment, this would be something that I would look with.
F: I’m Christine Sun Kim and this is Matthew Skopek. Thank you for watching.