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Museum Collection's Storage System Revolutionized by Collaboration
For the past 100 years, the standard in storing and transporting artworks has been wood crates, which block curators, conservators and registrars from seeing objects while in storage and also emit low levels of sulfur that can be damaging to artworks.
HOUSON, TX.- The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Rice University unveiled today a working prototype of a system that has the potential to revolutionize storage practices in the field of art conservation. For the past 100 years, the standard in storing and transporting artworks has been wood crates, which block curators, conservators and registrars from seeing objects while in storage and also emit low levels of sulfur that can be damaging to artworks. Due to the groundbreaking work of four Rice University undergraduate students who participated in an inaugural Engineering and Design for Art and Artifact (EDAAC) program at Rice University’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, a more conservation- and archival-friendly storage solution has been developed. Their innovative system allows three-dimensional art objects to remain visible and secure within a skeletal structure (made of materials approved by art conservators), and creates a safer, more visible environment for the work. In addition, the system enables quick assembly of the object housing, as the components can be easily assembled and disassembled—much like Tinker Toys or Erector Sets—yet still allows customization of securing and protecting the object within the structure.

“The prototype storage system that the EDAAC students designed has the potential to transform the way museums around the nation conserve, store, and move artwork. It is a major accomplishment,” said MFAH director Dr. Peter C. Marzio. “When different communities work together for the greater good, it is possible to achieve results beyond what any one institution could do. This project is the latest to come from a long-standing and successful history of partnership between the MFAH and Rice University.”

“I love the fact that our team had students in humanities and art history as well as engineering,” said Sallie Keller, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Rice's George R. Brown School of Engineering. “This project went beyond my wildest imagination in terms of what they accomplished. It's a really exciting time to build a strong programmatic connection, not only in the storage of artifacts but also in this whole interplay among art, science, engineering and technology.”

Out of a pool of over 30 applicants, four Rice undergraduate students were awarded fellowships from the university's Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), initiating research to apply the engineering design process to pressing problems in art conservation. As part of the inaugural EDAAC program—an interdisciplinary course taught from a humanities and engineering standpoint—the students worked with Rice University and MFAH staff to develop a standardized storage system to house three-dimensional artworks.

During an intensive, nine-week summer semester, undergraduate students Caleb Brown (bioengineering and visual and dramatic arts), Rhodes Coffey (mechanical engineering), Kristi Day (civil engineering) and Nicole Garcia (chemical engineering) spent 40 hours per week investigating art conservation storage solutions. The team was guided by Dr. Matthew Wettergreen, Caroline Collective, and Dr. Maria Oden, Professor in the Practice of Engineering Education.

The EDAAC class made several trips to the MFAH during the course of the summer, where they met with Wynne Phelan, Conservation Director, and Julie Bakke, Chief Registrar, to tour existing storage facilities, discuss preventative conservation, and learn how and why artworks are moved. The students also shadowed MFAH art handlers on weekly truck runs, observing the transportation of artworks. After their on-site studies in museum conservation and storage concluded, MFAH staff invited each student to design a storage solution for one artwork of their choice.

The students’ engineering design progress is well-documented on their Web site: http://edaac.rice.edu.

In addition, the students took a summer entrepreneurship course, sponsored by Innovation Norway, to complete business plans for their new product. The plans detail market size, cost analysis, a marketing plan and competitive analysis.

Four Storage Solutions
Prototype storage solutions have been designed for the following artworks: a bronze sculpture, titled "The Bronco Buster" (1895), by Frederic Remington; Medardo Rosso’s "Head of a Child" (The Jewish Boy), a wax and plaster sculpture created c. 1892; Antonio Berni’s "La sordidez" (Sordidness) de la serie Monstruos cósmicos (from the series Cosmic Monsters)—a sculpture made of wood, steel, iron, aluminum, cardboard, plastic, roots, nails and enamel c. 1964; and a cyanotype, paper, and thread dress, titled "History Dress #1" (from the series Identity Clothing) (2007-08), by Ginger Owen-Murakami.

The Museum of Fine Arts | Engineering and Design for Art and Artifact | Dr. Peter C. Marzio | Sallie Keller |




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