Historic Renovation: King Sculpture Court

Cleaning and Conservation of the Ceiling and Clerestory

Update, May 2015:
As alumni and parents of graduating seniors converged on the Oberlin College campus May 22-25, the AMAM happily marked the completion of conservation work on the ceiling and clerestory of the King Sculpture Court (KSC). The work, conducted by ICA-Art Conservation in Cleveland, had begun in earnest in June 2014; planning for the project started in autumn 2012, and earlier preparation dates to 1998.

Visitors have marveled as conservators carefully revealed the color and detail of Frederick J. Wiley’s painted decorations, designed in concert with architect Cass Gilbert. The AMAM is delighted to celebrate this important aspect of the museum’s historic infrastructure, as programs and installations resume in this central, soaring space.

The project would not have been possible without a lead gift from Oberlin College Trustee Alan Wurtzel (OC ’55) and his wife Irene. The project engendered very broad support: more than 95 members of the classes of 1964 and 1965 designated 50th reunion gifts to it and significant donations came in from scores of other museum supporters.

Two separate but related projects were the installation of new lighting systems in the KSC and Ripin Gallery. New conduit, track, fixtures, and bulbs were installed in June and July 2015. Like the 1917 chandelier that graces the KSC, these will now use energy-saving LED bulbs.

Again, private support enabled this work to move forward. Trustee Patricia Shanks (OC ’63) and her husband Merrill (OC ’61) made a substantial gift toward the advanced lighting array in the KSC. Kathleen O’Hara and Malcolm Walsh, parents of an Oberlin graduate, donated to ensure completion of work in the motion-sensor controlled Ripin Gallery, enabling lower overall exposure times for the light-sensitive works on paper displayed there.

The AMAM is deeply grateful to each and every donor who helped return the museum’s “crown” to its original grandeur, and who provided for modern, energy-efficient lighting for the collections displayed in these important areas of our historic building.

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 project to clean and conserve the ceiling was 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 was completed in May 2015.

The work presented a unique opportunity to involve Oberlin students. Conservator Heather Galloway taught 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 cleaned and conserved ceiling and clerestory in spring 2015.

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.