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Keeping Art Safe, Sound At Museum

July 22, 1987|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

SAN DIEGO — The ancient Chinese Buddha appears to be sitting precariously on its pedestal in the San Diego Museum of Art's current exhibit featuring its permanent collection.

Actually, the benevolent Buddha, circa 386-534 A.D., is held firmly, if invisibly, in place by an expanded-polyethelene foam block that fills the hollow figure and is fixed to the case. Upon closer examination, a visitor may spot a telltale monofilament fish line, looped about the figure and fastened to the case. And the pedestal is nailed to the baseboard.

Louis Goldich, the man who demanded stuffing and trussing of the Buddha, is a pessimist by trade. As registrar of the San Diego Museum of Art, Goldich is entrusted with the care and storing of some 10,600 art objects that are in the museum's collection.

As the collection's official protector, Goldich doesn't take kindly to suggestions of any unplanned jostling of the museum's artifacts, much less theft. He's also on the alert for the corrupting influence of moisture and light. If the humidity rises, molds can flourish, spotting an ancient master's artwork. Ultraviolet light can wash out drawings.

At any given time, only about 7% of the permanent collection is on exhibit. The rest is stored in vaults deep in the museum's bowels.

To care for the artworks, Goldich operates "from a disaster point of view," basing the museum's storage plans on his hypothesis that if something dreadful can happen, it will.

"The threat of disaster in Southern California is very real," Goldich said. Therefore, he plans for the worst, and arguably most likely, disaster to occur here--an earthquake.

Goldich and his staff are not worried so much about a mighty doomsday jolt that would bring down the walls. A mere rumbling of the earth can send a precariously perched figurine tottering off a shelf, crashing into smithereens.

An earthquake also carries with it the threat of fire, flooding and loss of electrical security systems, everything a registrar fears.

Goldich, who is recognized internationally for his disaster preparedness procedures, has changed much of the museum's techniques of storing and exhibiting art objects since he came to the museum nine years ago. Then, many of the valuables in the museum's collection were stored in whatever was at hand: shoe boxes, cardboard boxes or wooden chests that released gases which could harm delicate fabrics and papers.

Today, care is taken to brace and tie down irreplaceable objects so that they will not shatter one another.

Most paintings not on exhibit are hung on rows of metal screens rather than stacked in bins. That way, they aren't subjected to jostling each time a curator flips through a stack in search of a work.

The museum's central air-conditioning system also dehumidifies the air, maintaining a 50% humidity level. Artworks on paper are among the most vulnerable to "foxing," or spotting, from mold should the humidity rise. Paper also can become brittle if the air becomes too dry.

Light, another enemy to artworks, is monitored in the galleries. Windows in the Asian court are coated with a screen that filters ultraviolet rays. Certain artworks are rotated periodically to protect them from too much light exposure. Especially sensitive objects are exhibited under lights that must be turned on by viewers and automatically switch off after several minutes.

Museums rarely use sprinkler systems for fires because the water could ruin the art objects as easily as burning. Instead, the museum has equipped its storage vaults with a carbon dioxide fire suppression system that automatically fills the spaces with the gas, thus replacing oxygen, an essential ingredient for fires.

Goldich also seeks to protect against inadvertent destruction. The museum holds educational tours for firefighters.

"Firemen are trained to protect buildings," Goldich said. "Here the collection is worth more than a building. The force of a fire hose could blow a hole right through a painting or knock a priceless vase off a shelf."

Like most museums, the Museum of Art's storage vaults are in the basement, making flooding a more likely threat. If the sprinkler system in the wood shop goes off, the water could easily drain into the vaults. Therefore, items in the collection are perched off the floor, and sump pumps are available in case of flooding.

Goldich, who is also responsible for keeping records of all art objects coming into and going out of the museum, has made sure that the museum is equipped with diesel generators to run its intruder alarm systems, as well as its smoke detectors should electrical service be lost.

He also has pushed for better storage conditions for textiles. Fabric is stored on acid-free cardboard rolls. Similarly, the museum's extensive kimono collection is hung on specially made padded, unbleached muslin hangers inside lockers lined with unbleached muslin to keep out dust and light.

Caring and preserving art objects gives Goldich a special point of view. "This is not a circus," he said. "Personally, I think our role is to protect the objects and exhibit them secondly."

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