Historic Renovation: King Sculpture Court

Cleaning and Conservation of the Ceiling and Clerestory

As part of the original design for the 1917 building, architect Cass Gilbert hired painter Frederick J. Wiley to decorate the upper walls and ceiling of the museum’s grand central space, later named for the museum’s first curator, Hazel B. King. The faux-coffered ceiling is enlivened with animal and foliage designs in emulation of a 16th-century French style, while the upper walls feature verses written by the American transcendentalist Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-92). The condition of the decorations has been seriously compromised in their almost-hundred-year existence:  they display darkening and severe paint losses, particularly on the upper walls, and overpaint mars their surfaces, which have never been cleaned.

The current project to clean and conserve the ceiling has been decades in the making. Initial test-cleaning was done in 1998 by the Intermuseum Conservation Association (formed at Oberlin in 1952, through the efforts of then-AMAM director Charles Parkhurst). As part of a competitive process begun in 2012, they – now named ICA-Art Conservation – returned in 2013 and 2014 to conduct further tests and to develop the protocols for their work. At long last, conservators began work in June 2014, and the project is expected to be complete in May 2015.

The work presents a unique opportunity to involve Oberlin students. Conservator Heather Galloway is teaching a museum-sponsored course about the work during the fall 2014 semester, and participated in a spring 2014 first-year seminar on materials, taught by chemistry professor Catherine Oertel, in which she discussed the project.

The AMAM is currently soliciting funds to ensure that the project is completed on time. Please contact AMAM director Andria Derstine, at Andria.Derstine@oberlin.edu or 440-775-8665, for more information. A related project will provide new lighting in the King Sculpture Court, and funds are also being solicited to improve the lighting in the museum’s adjacent Ripin Gallery.

ICA conservators at work. The paintings along the left (south) side have been cleaned.

A detail of partially cleaned squares, showing the great difference between clean and dirty areas.

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Part of one of the poetry canvases, which are currently illegible from the floor. The cleaning will reveal their original gold- and silver-colored paint, and enable them to be read from below.