Unconventional materials

Tate conservators reconstructing part of Matthew Barney Ottoshaft 1992
Fig 1: Tate conservators reconstructing part of Matthew Barney Ottoshaft 1992

Contemporary sculptors continue to work in traditional materials such as marble and bronze; however, they also explore the possibilities of everyday and exotic materials. Corrugated iron sheeting and South American tapioca are just two examples found in sculptures recently acquired by Tate.

Whatever the materials, sculpture conservators need to understand their properties and how they behave, in order to preserve sculptures in good condition. Whenever possible this involves working closely with the artists.

A central part of American sculptor Matthew Barney’s installation Ottoshaft 1992 was a huge mattress of congealed tapioca. Even dry tapioca absorbs moisture from the air and quite soon the tapioca started to swell, making the mattress arch up like a humpback bridge. Based on tests by Tate conservators using several new tapioca and resin formula, a more stable mix was discovered. The artist then used the new mix to remake his piece, utilising a new stronger framework as recommended.

Degradation of materials

Conservators generally give advice on how modern materials can be preserved in good condition for as long as possible. However, where the artist intends for their work to change with time, conservators respect this intention while ensuring that visitors, staff and the gallery environment are not harmed by decomposing material.

Anya Gallaccio, 'preserve 'beauty'' 1991-2003
Anya Gallaccio
preserve 'beauty' 1991-2003
2000 red gerberas, glass, metal, rubber
displayed: 2600 x 5350 x 25 mm
Presented by an anonymous donor 2004© Anya Gallaccio, courtesy Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York

Anya Gallaccio’s preserve ‘beauty’ 1991-2003 consists of fresh flowers, intended to fade and decompose over a period of several weeks. The fungal spores that naturally develop as the flowers rot are a potential health hazard for asthma sufferers. However, it is possible to contain the growth of these spores by controlling the environmental conditions of the display area.

Naum Gabo, 'Model for 'Column'' 1920-21
Naum Gabo
Model for 'Column' 1920-21
Cellulose nitrate
object: 143 x 95 x 95 mm
Presented by the artist 1977The Work of Naum Gabo © Nina & Graham Williams/Tate, London 2011

An ongoing issue for sculpture conservators is the inherent tendency of most synthetic materials (including plastics) to degrade with age. Considerable research is undertaken into understanding and documenting these materials so that, if the onset of visible change and process of deterioration cannot be slowed, conservators may have the option to replicate the form and feel of the material in study or display models.

The cellulose nitrate parts of Naum Gabo’s sculpture Model for Column 1920-21 have yellowed but it – the oldest plastic sculpture in Tate’s collection – remains exhibitable, while some more recent plastic sculptures have degraded beyond restoration. Tate Papers: Degradation of Naum Gabo’s Plastic Sculpture

Even sculptures made from durable materials risk being damaged by the frequent handling and moving involved in Tate’s busy display, exhibition and loans programmes. Sculpture conservators advise on how best to handle Tate’s sculptures, many of which are extremely heavy or delicate. Similarly, where works consist of several parts and are complex to install, conservators work with the artist to document precisely how they should be installed for display. Much thought and effort also goes into the design and construction of custom-made safe storage and travel containers for sculptures, so that the works are always available for display at the various Tate sites and loan venues. This allows safe handling with minimum risk to the sculptures and to those involved in their transport and installation.

Outdoor sculpture

Tate has 38 sculptures in its collection which are displayed outside. The majority of these are on display in the garden at the Barbara Hepwoth Museum, but Tate has also loaned sculpture to a variety of public spaces such as parks, hospitals and other museums.

To protect the sculptures while they are on display, Tate’s sculpture conservators have developed a regular maintenance programme. Although it is not possible to halt changes to sculptures which are displayed outdoors, a regular programme enables the conservators to monitor and document any changes in the sculptures, and to carry out treatments that protect them from significant deterioration caused by atmospheric pollution.

Hot waxing bronze sculpture in St Ives - Barbara Hepworth Hollow Form with Inner Form 1968
Hot waxing bronze sculpture in St Ives - Barbara Hepworth Hollow Form with Inner Form 1968

Tate Sculpture department

Established: 1984

Conservators: 9.5 (including part-time posts)

Technicians and administrative staff: 1


  • Collaborating with colleagues at Tate sites to enable exhibitions and collection displays of sculpture
  • Providing care for all sculptures in the collection or on loan to Tate; recording their structure and condition; advising on safe storage and transport; performing necessary treatments
  • Researching sculptors’ techniques and materials, including interviews with them and their assistants
  • Developing improved treatment and conservation procedures