Caring for Collections: Preparing Objects for Exhibition

As the Museum reinstalls the main floor galleries, we share a “behind-the-scenes” look at how we care for and display the artwork in our collection, and how some of these practices can be applied to artwork in your own home. As a museum registrar, I am responsible for ensuring that the artwork in the Museum’s collection is in good condition, so it remains accessible to museum patrons. In DelArt’s Virtual Spring Magazine, I shared a few tips on how to bring some museum collections care practices into your own home art collections. In case you missed it, you can find it here.

Delaware Art Museum Chief Preparator Jonathan Schoff and Preparator John Gibbons are an integral part of the museum’s collections care work, as well as the 2021 reinstallation project. They are responsible for preparing artwork for display, and for the care, movement, and installation of all the objects throughout the museum. I recently asked them to share their best tips for framing, hanging, and packing art.

Art Handling 101

Use nitrile gloves when handling paintings, photographs, and three-dimensional objects. These prevent oils and debris from your hands from damaging the surface of the artwork. Do not use gloves when handling works on paper, especially delicate and fragile paper. This inhibits hand dexterity and increases the risk of mishandling and damage. Always make sure your hands are clean and dry!

Matting and Framing 101

How do you choose the right mat and frame for your artwork?

JS & JG: There is no set rule, but I would recommend at least a 2 ½ inch mat border around the object. If it is a large work of art, you may want a 3-4 inch border.   Add the border measurements to the measurements of the object, and that will be the frame size you need. Sometimes if you already have a special frame in mind, you may use that and customize the mat to fit accordingly.  It is very important to have a good quality non-acidic archival mat that is either 4 ply or 8 ply.  The thickness of the mat may be of personal preference or cost.

How can you secure the artwork to the mat, so it stays in place when hung?

JS & JG: You can create simple paper hinges. [See video below] I recommend using Japanese paper and wheat paste for your hinges.  Be careful not to oversaturate the hinge with paste. Doing so could wrinkle the paper where the hinge is in contact.  The most important thing is to make sure that the adhesive you are using is reversible and not permanent. In some cases when there is a large paper margin around the image, such as when you are matting a photograph, you can use plastic photo corners to secure the object to the mat. Paper corners can also be made and used to secure works on paper to a mat.

Take a look at how we hinge, mat, and frame a photograph for exhibition at the Museum.

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In this video, Jonathan Schoff is using water to activate a hinge that already has wheat paste on it.

Art Packing 101

If you are moving artwork, plan for safe transport by packing it in archival and protective materials.

  • Do not leave artwork in bubble wrap for long periods of time, as it may leave marks on and stick to the object. Wrap the object in polyester film, glassine (a translucent paper that is air, water, and grease resistant), or archival Tyvek (a breathable pH-neutral material made from polyethylene fibers) before applying bubble wrap. The bubble should face out to protect the art and minimize risk of the bubbles sticking the object’s surface.
  • Apply tape only to secure packing materials to one another; never use tape directly on an art object. To help remove tape from packed artwork, fold over one edge of the strip of tape to create a pull tab. This allows easy removal without the need for a knife or box cutter!
  • Foam core and cardboard can be used to create a slip-case as exterior packing outside of the archival packing materials, to provide a more rigid protective layer. Don’t use these materials directly on the surface of an artwork, because they are not archival, and they may stick to the surface of objects, can easily deteriorate, and may cause staining on the object because of their acidic properties.

What are the 3 essential tips and must-haves for packing artwork?

JS & JG:

  • Carboard sheets, archival plastic, bubble wrap, glassine, and packing tape are essential materials. A box cutter, tape measure, and pencil are essential tools.
  • Use a sturdy box or crate that is foam-lined to provide protection against vibration while traveling in a truck.
  • Sealing plastic around the art can create a microclimate, which will help stabilize the temperature and humidity and protect the art from minor fluctuations. Be aware of where you are storing your art and keep it away from heat or moisture.

Art Hanging 101

What is the standard height for hanging artwork?

JS & JG: We generally hang two-dimensional works of art at a 58-inch center in the Museum. This is so the center of each painting is at a general eye level, averaged at 58 inches. When hanging work at home, there are architectural elements that may force you to hang things at different heights. With groups of smaller objects and limited wall space, you could hang them stacked on top and next to one another in a “salon style.”  Finding relationships with your art is important when hanging in groups. This could be through subject matter, style, or a thematic connection. At the Museum, we generally follow the exhibition design envisioned by the curator. The much-anticipated reinstallation of the Museum’s Picturing America (American Art through 1900) Gallery, opening June 19th, will include a large salon wall. Stay tuned for a behind-the-scenes look at the installation of this gallery!

Elizabeth Denholm
Associate Registrar

Disclaimer: If you are unsure how to pack, move, or storage your artwork, or you have big plans for your own in-home art installation, contract a local fine art handler or art transport and storage company.