Conservation isn’t always glamorous, but I’m discovering that sometimes it glows! This summer I am working under conservator Suzanne Hargrove at the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio.
Toledo is a small city located in the northwestern portion of Ohio, right on Lake Erie. The Toledo Museum of Art was founded around the turn of the 20thcentury by Edward Drummond Libbey of the Libbey Glass Company. So it’s not surprising that (among other amazing collections) the TMA boasts what is considered one of the premier collections of glass art in the United States. It houses the majority of this collection, which spans from ancient to contemporary, in an all-glass building known as the Glass Pavilion. (Incredible, isn’t it?)
But that’s not really what I want to tell you about today. Instead, I’d like to tell you a bit about one of my favorite objects that is currently on display in the main museum building. It’s called Radio Light, and it is a contemporary glass piece by artist Paul Seide. Radio Light is really the centerpiece of the TMA’s first show (Color Ignited: Glass 1962-2012) in its newly renovated contemporary gallery. And for good reason. It is an absolutely incredible piece of art. Okay, I’m gushing a bit. But seriously, it’s awesome.
So what’s all the fuss about?
Radio Light is essentially comprised of a pair of looped, blown, colored glass tubes. The tubes have hollow cavities that are filled with mercury and argon gas. These two gas-filled glass loops sit atop an antenna plate that is connected to a specially designed radio transmitter. Both the radio transmitter and the glass need to be tuned to achieve the correct frequency to excite the argon and mercury. When this frequency is achieved, the sculpture lights up! (Think neon lights or Geissler tubes…similar principles at work). When the transmitter is off, the sculpture is pretty. But when it’s on, it’s absolutely magical!
As with most modern art, Radio Light‘s conservation needs aren’t readily apparent–But, as I’m constantly learning, successful conservation is just as much about preventive care and preparation as it is about treatment/stabilization. And (before my arrival at the TMA), Suzanne and the rest of the conservation team did some research on Radio Light’s radio transmitter. The transmitter is really one of a kind because it was hand-modified And no transformer= no excitation of the gas = no Radio Light. So it’s really important that the components of the transformer are carefully documented and that it’s lifespan is maximized. Practically, maximizing the lifespan means opening the exhibit casework at the beginning and end of every day to (a) turn the transmitter on and off and (b) tune the glass and radio to the correct frequency. And that’s where I (along with my fellow interns in the lab) come in. It may not be the most glamorous or challenging job in the world, but I have to say that I love the feeling of tuning the transmitter and manipulating the glass until Radio Light comes alive. It’s like hitting a home run!