LOS ANGELES – A dangerous intruder entered the Getty Museum in Brentwood in March last year as lights went out and galleries closed in museums across California in the first wave of coronavirus closings. It crept into the dark, serene decorative art galleries filled with ornate furniture, delicate ceramics, rare clocks, and intricately woven tapestries and rugs from the Middle Ages.
And it was hungry.
The intruder was the webbing moth that feeds on silk, wool, and other organic matter. The insect infiltrated other parts of the Getty Museum, but posed a particular threat to the fragile textiles and upholstered furniture.
As if COVID-19 shutdowns and the financial ramifications weren’t enough, a noticeable surge in unwanted pests, including insects and rodents, has plagued museums around the world during the pandemic. Many insects are attracted to dark, quiet places. Empty museum galleries offered ideal surroundings, a celebration of wealth – in the truest sense of the word.
The springtime museum closings have exacerbated the problem in many parts of the world, said Helena Jaeschke, a restorer who runs UK-based Pest Partners, which is dedicated to protecting heritage collections in south-west England.
“Spring is the mating season for pests in the northern hemisphere, and that coincided with the closure of buildings, with skeletons or without staff,” said Jaeschke. “There were no disturbances such as noise or light to limit pest activity. These were prime conditions for pests to spread.”
The Getty Museum took advantage of the expanded COVID-19 shutdown to conduct an intensive moth cleanup program that involved nearly all departments and that lasted approximately 6,000 hours. (The Getty Center in Brentwood will remain closed to the public, but the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades has reopened.) Though the Getty recognized the problem early and had not yet developed it, 17th century furniture was dismantled and tapestries and carpets were frozen Kill moths, larvae and eggs.
“Light, insects, humidity and temperature are the most egregious things that harm art,” said Jane Bassett, senior decorative arts curator at Getty. “So it was a preventative step.”
The Getty noticed the spike in moths in mid-April 2020. It has “zero tolerance” for pests, according to Bassett, and typically has around 55 moth traps dotted around the museum for detection and placed in places like storage rooms and galleries. They’re surprisingly low-tech tools that can be used by one of the richest museums in the world: sticky cardboard traps, much like a motel with cockroaches. Some of them contain female clothing moth pheromones to attract the insects.
Madeline Corona, assistant curator of decorative arts and sculpture whom Getty colleagues referred to as “pest control” during their battle against insects, makes weekly rounds and checks all traps. In pre-pandemic times, she usually saw a moth or two every few weeks or months. In April last year she repeatedly saw some moths in one of the galleries near an eighteenth-century pink silk upholstered bed. That number rose to 20 moths in another decorative art gallery.
The museum’s security staff not only monitor visitor behavior and prevent damage to works of art, but are also trained to keep an eye out for moths and other pests – and to alert the restorers to unwanted guests. As the security staff was reduced, the increase went unnoticed in many places.
“I was definitely worried,” said Corona. “But that’s why we have an integrated pest control plan. We were ready for pests!”
Enter: Project Moth Remediation, which mobilized a fleet of workers at the museum to clear the galleries of insects and ward off future ones. “We noticed a trend and preceded it before it became a problem,” said Corona.
“Moth control” is a fancy way of saying “deep cleaning” to remove not only the insects but also their food, the main source of which is dust. Dust – prepare for the ick factor! – consists of clothing, food, human skin and other materials that collect in cracks and crevices. The work teams descended onto a gallery with special tools such as a micro-spatula and a high-performance vacuum, the latter having the ability to “gently vacuum” on sensitive surfaces, said Bassett.
Just cleaning the floors in each gallery took a week. The workers used a letter opener to cut through cracks in the parquet flooring and then vacuumed up the debris.
“We had to find the dust in every crack between every piece of wood,” said Getty chief preparer Michael Mitchell, who oversaw the cleaning teams and the removal of artwork in the galleries. “We had crews of four on our hands and knees with vacuum cleaners and toothpicks and tiny, tiny brushes to clean.”
Since the Getty’s galleries are connected by hallways, all cleaning has been extended to the entire museum – 55 galleries in total. The paintings were removed and their backs, fronts and frames were gently dusted and the walls vacuumed. The cleaning in the 16 decorative art galleries was even more intense.
Twelve tapestries were carefully vacuumed with a brush with a natural bristle head before being removed with ropes and pulleys. then they were carefully rolled to avoid wrinkling and tension. Then they were frozen in four batches at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 days each in a trailer on campus. While the rest of Los Angeles quarantined its groceries in the garage, the Getty quarantined its textiles.
The textile work – including two French screens from the 18th century, a hand-knotted carpet made of wool and linen that was woven in the 1660s, and the wool and silk tapestry “Le Cheval Rayé” from the “Les Anciennes Indes” series from the 17th century – were usually several The workers were each cleaned, reloaded and positioned in the truck for a whole day. They were wrapped in polyester quilts for the attic, followed by layers of muslin to absorb moisture and sealed with plastic to prevent condensation. Then they were hung from cradles in the truck. to reduce the weight of the fibers.
One of the most difficult tasks was disassembling furniture. The museum’s 17th-century Boulle cabinet, likely a royal gift to Louis XIV. And considered one of the most popular items in the Getty, took three days to disassemble and clean. It has an incredibly complex earthquake mount made of steel, wood, and plexiglass that attaches it to the wall and floor. The cabinet was then dismantled, which was only done once for a technical study about 10 years ago. Much of the furniture had to be opened with special keys – which were kept under lock and key – to gain access to the earthquake mountings.
“It only takes a few days to remove these pieces, clean all of the components, and then a few days to put them back together,” said Mitchell. “Then multiply that by the objects in the room.”
Mitchell added that disassembling the objects had a silver lining: “It sounds cheesy, but you can be familiar with the objects,” he said. “We can walk past them all the time, but to actually see the insides of the cabinets, to find out how they’re put together, to talk to the curators and conservators about it, it’s stimulating.”
For dusting, the workers used brushes without metal, such as Japanese and Chinese brushes with sheep, squirrel and goat hair.
Of course, while the museum’s closure provided an opportunity for a thorough cleanup, the pandemic also made the task more difficult. Smaller crews wearing cumbersome PPE – including powered safety helmets with forced ventilation – took turns working for weeks, and progress was slow.
“It was a paradox,” Bassett said of the pandemic, resulting in a process that “could have taken three times as long”.
Most of the moth remediation is complete, but there is still about a week of work left. Carpets and tapestries are being reinstalled, and the Getty Center is slated to open in late May, though it hasn’t set a date.
After the museum has thoroughly cleaned the galleries, it can always stay one step ahead of the problem, Bassett said. With the dust gone for now, the galleries are a less appetizing destination for moths. The galleries are also no longer dark, even if the museum is still closed to the public.
At the start of the pandemic, “we thought,” Oh, what a wonderful opportunity to save electricity and not expose things to light, “said Bassett.” But these guys love to hide in the dark. So we turned on the lights. We now have them in our normal cycle. “
The challenges of months of cleaning, Bassett said, paid off in educational value.
“We learned a lot about the museum and the collections,” she said. “Not all of us were here when we installed the museum. Now we’re all up to date together to better understand the dec arts galleries and collections when the pandemic didn’t come.”
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