The Science of Display Cases

Roman  /  Aged Herakles  /  1st c. BC-AD  /  Acquired by Henry Walters

Conservator Katie Posthauer has been working for two years on a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to help identify and replace display cases in most need of updating to current conservation standards. Some of the display cases throughout the galleries at the Walters are older than others, and are made of less-stable materials than what is available now. This means that the conditions inside the case aren’t always ideal for the objects on display. Katie’s job has been to work with other conservators to determine which cases are at the highest risk and to replace them.

Once a case has been identified for replacement, the objects inside are removed from the gallery and a new case is built using the best materials available. This includes a special silica gel (similar to the little packets you’d find in your new shoes), special acrylic, and other pieces. The environmental conditions inside each case are carefully monitored, and even the fabric on the floor of the case is carefully tested to ensure that it cannot harm the object on display. Once the new case has been built and is ready, each object is removed and is cleaned.

Visitors to the window on Friday will be able to see some of these objects being treated, including the Roman bronze sculpture pictured here. 

Katie works on the Herakles bronze in preparation for its new case.

When Katie has finished the objects’ treatment, the cleaned pieces are replaced in the gallery for everyone to see. As you walk through the museum’s galleries, your attention will naturally be drawn to the artworks. You may not even notice many of the other important objects in the galleries: the cases. Although the cases aren’t designed to attract attention, they are designed to support the long-term protection and display of art objects. The majority of Katie’s work has been done in the Ancient Near Eastern galleries; many of the new cases and other objects are on view there.

Conservation Window

Watch and interact with conservators as they restore works of art at the Conservation Window, located in the fourth floor of the Centre St. building. The Conservation Window is open 12:30-4 p.m., Friday to Sunday.