When it comes to conserving art, prevention is key. Rather than focusing on the restoration of art pieces, today’s museums keep damage from happening in the first place by strictly controlling the artwork’s environment and safely handling pieces.
Given the increasing transit of art pieces between different museums and private collections, as well as the typical flow of objects between archive and exhibit spaces, storage within the museum is becoming ever more dynamic. As artwork arrives and departs, conservators and preparators are forced to move pieces within and between storage facilities frequently. Intra-museum transport is of greater concern than ever, since every occasion in which a piece is handled represents a risk of damage.
At the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, preparators protect two-dimensional artwork during short-distance transport through the use of travel frames that follow a basic, universal structure and design: the art object appears to be floating in a shallow wooden box, attached such that nothing touches the surface or edges of the piece.
However, because travel frames must be custom-fabricated for each piece and are made of non-reusable materials, they are effectively single-use objects. While empty travel frames could be stored for future use, they take up too much of the already limited space at the museum’s storage facilities, so they often have to be discarded. Furthermore, it takes a significant amount of time for museum preparators to build a travel frame and secure an art piece to it. Unfortunately, these factors make for an inefficient and ultimately wasteful system.
Hence the challenge posed to us by the MFAH: how can we redesign travel frames so as to optimize resources, space, labor, and time? Using a multidisciplinary and design-based approach, our team, under the mentorship of Dr. Matthew Wettergreen, has developed working prototypes of solutions that can be implemented not only at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, but throughout the museum industry.