Conservation tools and materials at Tate

© James Deavin

Works of art on paper can be easily damaged by handling and by light and air pollution. To care for them effectively, Tate’s conservators must establish how the works were created.

Even such apparently simple acts as adhering paper to a mount board during framing can result in serious damage if done unthinkingly. At Tate Japanese tissue is used with a minimal amount of starch or methyl cellulose adhesive. Modern adhesives used in commercial framing introduce the possibility of staining the paper in the long term and can in time fail.

Paper conservation

The discipline of paper conservation traditionally has two main elements:

  • maintaining the paper itself in a good condition
  • preserving the images that artists have made on that paper.

While many artists still use paper in traditional ways, many use it in non-traditional ways.

Furthermore, a number of complex contemporary works, such as installations, incorporate paper within them. Paper conservators must be versatile and, like other conservators at Tate, be ready to preserve not only the physical object, but also the essence of the artist’s intention for the work.

Tate also continually carries out research to find new and better ways to care for paper. One current line of investigation is anoxic display. Paper sealed into a frame without oxygen can, in theory, be exposed to greater light levels than normally considered acceptable, without either discolouration of the paper or fading of the pigments occurring. Anoxic storage of paper-based works of art

The rate of acquisition for works on paper is high. All four Tate sites have busy programmes of rotating displays. Works on paper require framing for display as they are generally stored unframed. Paper is light-sensitive so the display of works on paper has to be rationed and rotated to avoid excessive exposure.

Tate Paper department

Established: 1971

Conservators: 3.5 (including part-time posts)

Technicians and administrative staff: 4