Findings from the Museum’s Sculpture Conservation Work

By Bridget Killian ’16 and Molly Knox ’15

Two life-size bronze statues outside the Museum of Art recently underwent an on-site conservation and cleaning by a team devoted to the conservation and preservation of cultural and historical objects. A brief history and findings of the work are shared below.

Sculpture before treatmentBrief History
Two bronze statues occupy the wall niches on either side of the main staircase. The statues represent Sophocles, an ancient Greek playwright, and Demosthenes, a statesman and orator in ancient Athens. These likenesses are copies of originals done by Sabatino de Angelis, a nineteenth-century Neapolitan sculptor. The Sophocles statue was modeled from a Greek late fourth century BCE marble statue, and the Demosthenes is a copy of a marble Vatican Collection copy of the original bronze, which was sculpted by Polyeuktos of Athens in 280 BCE. McKim, the architect of the Walker Art Building, suggested to the Walker Sisters, the donors of the Building, that they place statues of a Great Hermes and Samothrace Victory in the niches. The Walker Sisters ultimately decided on the playwright and orator because they believed that these figures fit in with the then all-male, Classically-focused College better than the less academic heroes suggested by McKim. Since their installation in 1894, the statues have undergone weathering and some corrosion. In order to preserve the integrity of the building we will be cleaning the statues in the summer of 2014.

Examinations and discoveries: What the conservators found
Through a careful analysis of the surface, the conservators identified the main sources of corrosion of the statues: sulfur, an atmospheric pollutant, and calcium carbonate, which is created when water runs down the limestone niches, lands on the statues, and reacts with the bronze. The conservators were also searching for evidence of the original 18th century patina, or the color of the surface, but found no records of what the statues were originally intended to look like. From verbal records and conversations with Museum employees, the conservators discovered that the statues were cleaned with a walnut shell abrasive blasting in the mid 1970s. This intense cleaning removed any evidence of the original patina. From here, the conservators decided how best to conserve the statues.

Plans for the future
As of now, the proposed conservation has been completed: the statues were cleansed of all surface dirt, grime, and water pollutants, and were scrubbed with abrasives such as bristle brushes in order to remove surface corrosion. As layers of grime were removed the statues appeared green, which was the last layer that could be cleaned without damaging the actual statues’ surfaces. This green layer was then treated with heat and chemicals to revert the colored surface to the dark brown of the 1970s cleaning. A hot wax layer was then applied to this colored surface as a protective coating. We will have to re-do this wax treatment every two years in order to preserve the deeper layers, and we will also have to re-do the more thorough treatment every 10-20 years, but with maintenance and care the statues will last for many more generations.