Inquiring minds: Conserving a Collection


The QAGOMA Foundation assists with Gallery conservation activities such as supporting complex treatments, technical art history studies, innovative research and analysis that frequently leads to publication and contributes to a wider body of industry knowledge, and enabled a research project with the Heritage Conservation Centre, Singapore.

We delve into recent investigations into the materials and methods of two mid-century Australian contemporaries — Charles Blackman and Sidney Nolan — as well as colonial Queensland artist JH Grainger.


Charles Blackman

Gallery conservators were able to determine that Charles Blackman used unconventional mediums, such as house paints, to create his works.1 He was also blending his own paint formulations2 to create compositions that are a melange of matt and gloss paints, applied in multiple layers, which he then made additionally complex through impasto and sgraffito techniques.3

Charles Blackman, Australia b.1928 / Barbara c.1960 / Oil on composition board / 20.5 x 23.8cm / Bequest of Maryke Degeus through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2011 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Charles Raymond Blackman/Copyright Agency
A corresponding X-ray of Charles Blackman’s Barbara c.1960 which shows a completely different composition of a figure seated at a table (inverted) beneath the surface paint layers

Sidney Nolan

Sidney Nolan, Australia 1917-1992 / (Anita Rafferty at Indian Head, Fraser Island) 1947 / Gift of Anita Rafferty, 2016 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

The ‘Nolan in Queensland’ conservation project involved the investigation of three works in the Collection, and saw conservators turn sleuth in an effort to piece together the compelling story of Sidney Nolan’s time on Fraser Island. Through considered detective work, painting conservator Anne Carter was able to locate and interview 80-year-old Anita Rafferty (pictured in Anita Rafferty at Indian Head, Fraser Island 1947), the daughter of Norm Crombie, a forestry overseer on Fraser Island who hosted Nolan’s visit in 1947. Anita was just ten at the time, but remembers posing for Nolan in photographs he took on the beach at Indian Head.4

Sidney Nolan, Australia 1917-1992 / Platypus Bay, Fraser Island 1947
Sidney Nolan, Australia 1917-1992 / Platypus Bay, Fraser Island 1947 / Enamel on board / Purchased 2013. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © The Bridgeman Art Library
Sidney Nolan, Australia/England 1917-1992 / Mrs Fraser 1966
Sidney Nolan, Australia/England 1917-1992 / Mrs Fraser 1966 / Water-based fabric dye on paper / Purchased 2003. The Queensland Government’s special Centenary Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © The Bridgeman Art Library

Anne Carter’s investigation and analysis of two of Nolan’s works in the Collection — Platypus Bay, Fraser Island and Mrs Fraser, both 1947 — reveal the use of masonite supports sourced from demolished buildings on Fraser Island.5 A forensic examination of Mrs Fraser revealed at least six alterations to the work, and the inclusion of a painted oval spandrel reducing the composition, followed later by the cutting down of the masonite support.6

JH Grainger

JH Grainger, Australia c.1853–1931 / Turtle island (prior to conservation) c.1889 / Oil on canvas / 43 x 64cm (oval) / Purchased 2010. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art
JH Grainger’s Turtle island undergoing conservation
JH Grainger’s Turtle island showing the printed images of turtles that have been cut out and attached to the painted canvas as collage-like inclusions

Queensland artist JH Grainger’s Turtle island c.1889 is a rare and peculiar example of colonial painting. A founding member of the Queensland Art Society, Grainger was also the recipient of the 1897 Queensland International Exhibition gold medal for a seascape.7 This curious painting incorporates printed images of turtles that have been cut out and attached to the painted canvas as collage-like inclusions, which is a highly unusual technique for an artist practising in the 1880s. The project to restore this painting is a major undertaking, involving specialists from paintings, paper and framing conservation.

QAGOMA Painting Conservator Anne Carter at workon a pre-primed canvas as part of the collaborative research projectwith Singapore’s Heritage Conservation Centre / Photograph: Chloë Callistemon © QAGOMA
A sample of pre-primed canvas under extreme magnification

Foundation fundraising has also been directed towards a major collaborative research project with colleagues at Singapore’s Heritage Conservation Centre (HCC), designed to investigate contemporary pre-primed artist canvases and grounds. Little is known about contemporary canvas fibres or the formulas used to prepare their ground layers, but these preparatory elements have a significant effect on the behaviour and stability of subsequent paint layers, greatly influencing the aging characteristics of pigments and paints. Understanding these elements is vital to conservation treatment of contemporary painted works, and its outcomes.

Through the generous support of the Foundation, these meticulous research and analysis projects, and technically complex treatments, are able to contribute to our collective knowledge and understanding of the Gallery’s Collection.

Amanda Pagliarino is Head of Conservation and Registration, QAGOMA

1 Felicity St John Moore, Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls and Angels: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Charles Blackman [exhibition catalogue], National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1993, p.17.
2 Anne Carter, ‘Blackman’s house paints: Icy blues and blood reds’, Lure of the Sun: Charles Blackman in Queensland [exhibition catalogue], Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2015, p.40.
3 The full story of this research appears in the QAGOMA publication Lure of the Sun: Charles Blackman in Queensland (2015).
4 Carter, notes from an interview with Anita Rafferty (QAGOMA unpublished material), recorded 18 February 2016.
5 Carter, research notes (QAGOMA unpublished material), 2016. Research findings from the ‘Nolan in Queensland’ conservation project are published as a chapter in a forthcoming Getty Publications publication titled Sidney Nolan: The Artist’s Materials.
6 Carter, research notes (QAGOMA unpublished material), 2016.
7 Glenn Cooke, ‘Turtle island essay’ (QAGOMA unpublished material), September 2010.


Climate for galleries: An evolution in thinking


The cultural heritage sector recognises the need to demonstrate a commitment to social, environmental and economic sustainability. Traditionally museums and galleries have been significant consumers of energy and resources — for controlled lighting and air conditioning — but a transformation in our approach to managing the collection environment is underway.

The landmark publication The Museum Environment was first printed in 1978. Its author, Garry Thomson CBE, wrote three books in his lifetime: two on the Buddhist philosophy that guided his spiritual life, and one on the then-emerging field of preventive conservation. The latter was a rigorous scientific investigation of the effects on cultural heritage of light, humidity and air pollution, tempered and intertwined with the discerning awareness of Thomson’s faith. He wrote:

There is something inelegant in the mass of energy-consuming machinery needed at present to maintain constant RH [relative humidity] and illuminance, something inappropriate in an expense which is beyond most of the world’s museums. Thus, the trend must be towards simplicity, reliability and cheapness.1

Thomson’s aspiration, some 40 years ago, for energy-efficient, low-cost environmental control is now an imperative for museums and galleries. Collection-environment research happening in Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art’s (QAGOMA) conservation department has seen the Gallery take a leading role in bringing about changes in industry practice.

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A view of the Cultural Centre’s river pump room / Photograph: Natasha Harth

Over the past few years, I have been researching the collection environment and developing new climate-specific temperature and relative humidity (RH) parameters for the storage and display of collections. The Australian Institute recently published this research as national guidelines for the Conservation of Cultural Material.2 I was fortunate to be a participant in the Getty program Preserving Collections in the Age of Sustainability and, in early 2019, spent two months as a guest scholar at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. Later, a Churchill Fellowship enabled me to continue my research in the United States, Hong Kong and Singapore, including visits to the Smithsonian Institute, M+ Museum, and the Heritage Conservation Centre, where I further investigated the management of collection environments in diverse climates.

However, while museums and galleries make headway to reduce their carbon footprints, the internationally accepted standard for environmental control for objects on loan has remained firmly entrenched and resistant to change. The practice of exchanging cultural objects understandably has precipitated a uniform approach. This includes established expectations for crating and shipping, documentation and condition reporting, static and transit insurance, loan agreements, but also requires adherence to a rigidly enforced and difficult-to-maintain median temperature (20 or 21 degrees Celsius) and RH (50 or 55% RH) convention.

Our continued use of the narrow temperature and RH convention runs counter to the cultural heritage sector’s desire for sustainability. Recognising the importance of aligning lending practices with the sector’s sustainability agenda, heads of conservation Carolyn Murphy (Art Gallery of New South Wales), Michael Varcoe-Cocks and MaryJo Lelyveld (National Gallery of Victoria) and I approached the Council of Australian Art Museum Directors (CAAMD) with a recommendation to adopt wider parameters for loans. CAAMD unanimously endorsed this recommendation and adopted the Bizot Green Protocol for Loans — an international guideline that broadens the acceptable parameters for temperature (16–25 degrees Celsius) and RH (40–60%RH) control. A cross-disciplinary taskforce of conservators, registrars, collection and facility managers, representing the CAAMD member organisations, is currently working through the logistics of implementing this new approach to managing the exchange of cultural objects.

Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) / Photograph: Ray Fulton
Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) / Photograph: Natasha Harth

We are also making changes to temperature and RH parameters for the storage and display of the works housed in QAG and GOMA. These buildings require different sustainability strategies to manage their air-conditioned environments. The thermal mass of QAG provides a very stable internal environment, while GOMA’s lightweight structure is more responsive to external weather conditions. After testing the suitability and efficiency of wider temperature and RH parameters at GOMA, we are encouraged by early results. With the support of Arts Queensland – Arts Property and Facilities, and Honeywell as the Cultural Precinct’s heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) agent, we continue to investigate ways to reduce our energy consumption.

Amanda Pagliarino is Head of Conservation and Registration, QAGOMA

1 Garry Thomson, The Museum Environment, Butterworths, London, 1978, p.249. Garry Thomson (1925–2007) was Scientific Advisor to the Trustees and Head of the Scientific Department at the National Gallery, London, where he worked from 1955 to 1985.
2 Amanda Pagliarino, ‘Environmental Guidelines’, AICCM, published 26 May 2019,, viewed November 2019.

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Feature image: Amanda Pagliarino checks GOMA’s Collection Storage environment monitor / Photograph: Natasha Harth


Behind the SaVAge K’lub


In the lead-up to ‘The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT8), QAGOMA’s conservation staff applied their skills and knowledge to several artworks that are on display. We share some background information on one of the exhibition’s major works, which required the collaboration of the Queensland Museum.

Collaboration with the Queensland Museum

Amanda Pagliarino, Head of Conservation and Registration, and Jennifer Blakely, Conservator, Queensland Museum, discuss options for the display of the kahu kiwi / Photograph: M Sherwood © QAGOMA
The kahu kiwi installed in the SaVAge K’lub / Photograph: N Harth © QAGOMA
The Queensland Museum’s Nick Hadnutt and QAGOMA registrar Tiffany Noyce (right) examining and recording the details of items from the Museum / Photograph: N Harth © QAGOMA
Rosanna Raymond’s APT8 installation SaVAge K’lub / Photograph: C Callistemon © QAGOMA

Rosanna Raymond’s APT8 installation SaVAge K’lub is a meeting place, a locus of activity and happenings, set in the scene of a late-nineteenth century gentlemen’s club. She presents ideas about space and activation in response to historical practices of collecting, storing and displaying cultural objects. Ruth McDougall, Curator, Pacific Art, explains that Raymond seeks to redefine museum ‘care’ to incorporate ideas of animation, use and community connection:

Gently, but resolutely, she embarks on a process of educating and enabling curators, conservators, registrars and other staff across three Queensland cultural institutions1 to understand the importance of Pacific people and their bodies in order to ensure the long-term ‘care’ and wellbeing of the tāonga (cultural treasures) of which they are custodians.

The objects and artworks that adorn the space and fill the cabinets have been sourced by Raymond from local museum and university collections, from individuals and from communities across the Pacific region. The volume of objects necessary to compose the installation, along with the logistics required to transport, conserve, and prepare these objects for display, places SaVAge K’lub in the realm of ‘a museum within a museum’.

SaVAge K’lub

Rosanna Raymond’s APT8 installation SaVAge K’lub / Photographs: N Harth © QAGOMA

One of the first priorities for objects and artworks entering the Gallery is planning for their care while on site, in conjunction with the safe management of the Gallery’s Collection. Around 300 objects were borrowed for the SaVAge K’lub installation: on arrival at the Gallery, each of these was assessed, in accordance with the Gallery’s collection management procedures. Objects that came from international lenders were first evaluated by Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service on entry into the country. As part of the Gallery’s preventive conservation program, all plant- and timber-based objects underwent low-temperature treatment before being made available for display. This involves freezing objects at minus 18 degrees Celsius to ensure that they are free of insects that might pose a risk to the rest of the Gallery’s Collection.

A range of objects for the SaVAge K’lub was selected from the collection of the Queensland Museum. Gallery conservators, registrars, designers and workshop officers benefited from our proximity to and relationships with our precinct neighbour. In the lead-up to installation, QAGOMA staff were able to undertake a great deal of preparatory work at the Queensland.

Museum on objects that had been selected for loan. This included multiple visits to view and document objects, to discuss the logistics of transport, and prepare objects for treatment and display. Two particular loans posed interesting conservation and display issues — a kahu kiwi (feathered cloak) acquired in 1925, and a contemporary waka (outrigger canoe), created for Brisbane’s Warana Festival in 1989.2

QAGOMA sculpture conservator Liz Wild and I worked closely with Queensland Museum conservators Cathy ter-Boght and Jennifer Blakely, to devise a suitable display system for the kahu kiwi, a delicately constructed plant-fibre cloak intricately woven with kiwi and other bird feathers. The mounting system uses a ridged, shaped supporting ring onto which the cloak is attached using a discrete system of magnets. The waka presented interesting challenges due to the scale of the object. The canoe is four metres long, the binding that lashes the outrigger to the canoe has completely failed, and it was necessary to suspend the object high within the installation space. All of these factors needed to be considered in the display of the object. In order to design a safe and suitable display system, it was necessary for several Gallery staff members to view, measure and document the canoe before arranging its transfer to the GOMA conservation laboratory. Artworks such as SaVAge K’lub present a range of interesting challenges for conservators, designers, registrars and installation staff. Connecting with our Queensland Museum colleagues and working together to conserve the kahu kiwi and the waka will be an enduring legacy of this project.

Amanda Pagliarino is Head of Conservation and Registration, QAGOMA

1  QAGOMA, Queensland Museum, and the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum.
2  The Warana Festival, a program for people’s entertainment, commenced in 1961 and later evolved into the Brisbane Festival in the mid 1990s.

Watch | Savage Klub’s performance by Pacific artists

The Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT) is the Gallery’s flagship exhibition focused on the work of Asia, the Pacific and Australia / Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / 21 November 2015 – 10 April 2016


There’s a soap in my painting!


Surely the last place you would look for the soap is in your favourite oil painting? Not so, as over the past decade conservators and conservation scientists have been investigating the peculiar phenomena of soap formation in the rich, oil-laden layers of paint used in the paintings and masterpieces we love to look at.

But let’s be specific – we are talking about metal soaps – the formation of large molecules of fatty acids bound to a metal ion. In the multi-layered structure of an oil painting metals are present in the pigments used to colour paints and the fatty acids are present in paint binders such as linseed oil. The interaction of pigment and binder to form a metal soap is extraordinarily complex but the consequence on the condition of an affected painting can be profound.

Lead and zinc soap formations, the most common forms of metal soap, can lead to extreme changes in the chemical stability of paintings including – increased transparency of paint layers; the formation of insoluble, efflorescent blooms that obscure the surface of the picture; large aggregate formations that push out from below the surface distorting the appearance of the paint layer; flaking caused by accumulation of soaps at the interface between paint layers; and even highly mobile, dripping paint.

DIVE DEEPER: More conservation projects unveiled

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digital-blog-FULLBROOK, Pike's farm (detail), zinc soap bloom
Surface bloom caused by zinc soap efflorescence which obscures the vibrant underlying colours / Photograph: Gillian Osmond
digital-blog-CARRICK FOX, Marketplace, lead soaps macro 50x
x50 magnified detail showing paint surface disrupted by lead soap lumps erupting from within / Photograph: Gillian Osmond
Before conservation treatment, part b
Active drips from reliquefying paint / Photograph: Natasha Harth

Through the Centre for Contemporary Art Conservation, Dr. Gillian Osmond, QAGOMA Paintings Conservator, has been researching zinc soap formation in paintings by contemporary artists. Gillian’s significant contribution in this important field of research was acknowledged when she was invited to speak at the international art conference, Metal Soaps in Art 1 organised by the Netherlands Institute for Conservation, Art and Science and the Rijksmuseum. 

Gillian has said,

I am excited to be collaborating with a group of respected international peers on the scientific committee for the Metal Soaps in Art conference. Together we will work to compile and share the most recent and significant findings in this area of research with our colleagues more broadly, and consider implications for collections worldwide.

Amanda Pagliarino is Head of Conservation and Registration, QAGOMA

1  Metal Soaps in Art,

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There’s an app in my artwork

Natio'nal New Media Art Award 2012' Installation view
George Poonkhin Khut, Australia b.1969 / Distillery: Waveforming 2012 / Custom software and custom heart rate monitor on iPad and Mac Mini Signal analysis software: Angelo Fraietta and Tuan M Vu; visual effects software: Jason McDermott, Greg Turner; electronics and design: Frank Maguire / The National New Media Art Award 2012. Purchased 2012 with funds from the Queensland Government / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

At the recent Born Digital and Cultural Heritage Conference (June 2014), organised by the Play It Again research group, artist George Poonhkin Khut and QAGOMA’S Head of Conservation Amanda Pagliarino presented their perspectives on the Gallery’s acquisition of Distillery: Waveforming 2012, the winning entry in the Queensland Art Gallery’s 2012 National New Media Award.

Distillery: Waveforming is a biofeedback controlled interactive experience conceived as an iOS 5.1.1 application for the third generation Apple iPad. This prototype artwork is an ensemble that presents unique conservation challenges, made up of iPads loaded with a software application called BrightHearts; heart rate monitors; Arduino microcomputers; Apple Mac mini computers; and a WiFi networking system.

The biofeedback aspect of Distillery: Waveforming uses electrical monitoring of the autonomic cardiovascular system. The artwork captures bio-input of a user’s real-time heart rate and this data is then processed via computer and sent on to an iPad as animations and audio. As the user engages with the artwork they can induce changes in the mandala-like animations through subtle changes in their state of relaxation.

Visitors sit down at iPad stations, then don headphones and clip on a heart-rate sensor and begin to see oscillating circular animations on an iPad screen. These animations reflect the visitor’s state of excitement or relaxation. As the visitor reflects on the animations and slows their breathing the animations change from warm colours to cool blues and greens. The sound of the visitor’s pulse, resynthesised through electronic sound design, is fed back as chime-like sounds, producing an immersive, meditative experience.

Fig 2_BLOGcrop
George Poonkhin Khut / Distillery: Waveforming (Portrait of Lian, January 2012) 2012 / HD video: 24 minutes, 9:16, colour, stereo Camera: Julia Pendrill Charles; styling: Troy Brennan / The National New Media Art Award 2012. Purchased 2012 with funds from the Queensland Government / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Distillery: Waveforming is one ‘iteration’ of the biofeedback project begun by George 10 years ago. Since the artwork came into the Collection George has continued to develop BrightHearts with data analysis and processing now imbedded in the app software and the app available for download from iTunes.  The BrightHearts app that was acquired as part of Distillery: Waveforming is a developmental version, requiring data analysis to be performed by external computers.

At the conference, George was pleased to have the opportunity to reconnect with Distillery: Waveforming and to see the developmental version of BrightHearts. The superb quality – the richness and depth – that was achieved in the animations is yet to be realised in the downloadable version.

Fig 3_BLOGcrop
George Poonkhin Khut in the GOMA Conservation Laboratory with some of the technology of Distillery: Waveforming

The Gallery places significance on Distillery: Waveforming as a prototype and intends to maintain it in its original configuration for as long as is functionally possible. To enable this, the iPad devices were jail-broken to provide long-term access and management of the BrightHearts app. The Gallery has digitally archived the software to run the various devices; source code, which is the computer instructions interpreted for programming; and supporting video documentation. Two, third-generation iPad devices have been stored as back-up replacement technology.

Audio visual artwork conservators usually find themselves working with electronics and technologies that have in some part been modified, altered, patched, manipulated, rewired, reconfigured, refabricated or completely repurposed. Conserving audio visual artworks requires different conservation approaches and tailored strategies that respond to each individually.

What sets this artwork apart from others is the interest the artist has in its preservation. George has provided the Gallery with invaluable materials for the archive including the source code; copies of all the software programs with descriptions of their modifications and patches; documentary and support material; and a comprehensive user’s manual.  Building an archive of this quality with the artist’s assistance provides the Gallery with an extraordinary resource for the future.