Adjunct Instructor, University of Penn
I worked for the Philadelphia Museum of Art for five years. My job title was “Conservation Technician.” While the word “conservation” suggests that the job requires skills in preserving art, the word “technician” completely cancels that out. We had no lab or office. Instead we had a Rubbermaid cart loaded with cleaning supplies, a pager that kept us in contact with the main lab, and a couple of tins of Altoids mints. Fresh breath is expected from all PMA employees.
We worked in the public galleries. Most days were filled with mindless conversation with my three co-workers on our familiar path through the museum, dusting tabletops, washing glass, and hearing visitors make the same comment: “When you get finished here, you can come clean my house!”
99% of our job was dusting frames, furniture and sculpture. We also cleaned nasty fingerprints, nose prints, and various bodily fluids off the glass and Plexiglas cases. The other 1% of the job was large-scale, limited-skill jobs that the real conservators (the ones with degrees) didn’t have time to finish. In the past, that had included replacing rotten potatoes in Victor Grippo’s Analogía sculpture with not-so-rotten potatoes, cleaning the bird poop off of Rodin’s Gates of Hell, vacuuming tapestries, etc.
During one regular cleaning day, the pager started beeping. I took the elevator down seven stories to the underground tram that the museum has for its workers, and rode for approximately 25 minutes to the undisclosed location of the conservation lab.
In the lab I was given a jar of Plexi shavings, and three more jars with different clear liquids in them. Only one of the liquids was labeled. I was told to go to the Duchamp collection gallery and try to repair the graffiti that had been scratched into the surface of a window. Instructions for the materials were explained to me in about five seconds. It sounded like I was supposed to melt the Plexi shavings with one of the liquids and then paint the mixture onto where someone had scratched “BD” into the window.
“How much Plexi should I put into the liquid?” I asked.
“Just feel your way through it. It’ll be fine.”
The window in the Duchamp gallery is located four feet from the Bride Stripped Bare sculpture. It looked out to the fountain in the front of the museum and had quite a few initials scratched onto it.
I think I had a jar of acid to melt the Plexi, a jar of something to stop the acid, and a jar of something to clean the window, but once the lids came off, I didn’t know what anything was. I tried to paint the window with the liquid that melted the Plexi, but it started to drip. I took a paper towel and dabbed away the drip. It smeared. Let me be clear, the drip did not smear — the window smeared. I didn’t realize that the surface of the window had been compromised. Rather than leaving well enough alone, I took the paper towel and now did not dab, but instead wiped. What started out as “BD” turned first into a small melted section in the window and then into a 3” circle at eye-level in one of the most visited rooms in the PMA. Now I had left my mark at the museum.
I turned around to see if any visitors were there, but instead saw half of the contemporary curatorial staff. I looked at them; my mouth dropped open, then I looked back at the window and said, “Looks like I made it worse.”
I heard a long sigh, and saw a look that seemed to say, “We knew you couldn’t do this, but we’re still disappointed”.
One said, “Well, we’ve wanted to replace that window for a long time anyway.” They walked off. I scraped my jars together and headed back to the lab.
“So how did it go?”
“I made it worse.”
Within the week, my mistake was forgotten by all but me. The window was replaced a few months later. My normal routine resumed: walking the regular path through the museum, scraping human fluids off the glass, and getting videotaped cleaning like an animal at the zoo. The heckling continued.
“When you get finished here, you can come clean my house!”
Followed by someone cackling, “Oh! You’re a riot!”
Published October 2006