Demolition dust in the sculpture garden of the Baltimore Museum of Art sparks reflections on labor and preservation

Demolition dust in the sculpture garden of the Baltimore Museum of Art sparks reflections on labor and preservation

The day job of our contributor Dereck Stafford Mangus is a museum keeper at the Baltimore Museum of Art, but Dereck also works as a member of the museum’s conservation team dusting the sculptures in the sculpture garden. Recently, the dusting jobs collided with the demolition of a building next to the museum on the Johns Hopkins University campus, triggering Dereck’s reflections on demolitions in general and the work of artists and restorers. Enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at a different kind of museum work. All photomontages by Dereck Stafford Mangus.

Demolition # 1 of the Johns Hopkins Mattin Center (2021). Photomontage by Dereck Stafford Mangus

If I could start all over again, I would be a demolition professional. I find the sensory abundance of a torn building deeply satisfying. The crackle of falling debris or a cascading wall across the earth as a structured mass wave disintegrates; broken pieces and broken pieces; the hanging pieces, the rubbish and the dust, are cathartic. Razing a building is the anarchist’s revenge on architecture.

Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t be delighted to be woken up by the cacophony of a controlled demolition right outside my bedroom window each morning. But if that was my profession, in a remote location, far from home, with permission granted, and the proper gear – headphones, headphones, goggles – I’d be like a kid in a candy store, destroying buildings with total joy. And get paid to do it! Monetary compensation would crush any residual guilt I might retain from my teenage years, when much more modest acts of destruction were seen as socially unacceptable.

Johns Hopkins University (JHU) recently demolished its Mattin Center, a $ 17 million three-building arts complex that opened on its Homewood campus in 2001. As pointed out by Edward Gunts in The architect’s journal, the University removed the 20-year-old structures to “make way for the new Hopkins Student Center, a $ 250 million, 150,000 square foot” village “for student programs and activities designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group ( BIG) and Shepley Bulfinch, with David Rockwell Group as interior designer and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates as landscape architect. It all sounds really impressive. But leaving aside the question of not preserving a building complex award-winning only 20 years old, what does this suggest about the future of the arts at JHU? Destroying the art center for the benefit of a student center may sound great to students outside of the arts, but what What about arts students (and their parents)? And what about the larger arts community in Baltimore? Or even next door, at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA)?

The demolition phase of the project took most of the fall. There is something almost poignant about a building being razed in the fall. It’s poetic, about the cultural and natural signifiers of death and decadence merging momentarily in this fleeting moment, the leaves falling like so many bricks. And the dust! Menacing clouds of fine particles escape from the site, far beyond, settling over everything in their path like an almost imperceptible blanket of snow.


Collage of photos from a demolition site, featuring a half-demolished building, taken from across the street, outside a fence.
Demolition # 2 of the Johns Hopkins Mattin Center (2021). Photomontage by Dereck Stafford Mangus

I work at the BMA. My full-time position is that of museum keeper. But for the past two years, during the warmer months of one of my two days off, I’ve helped the Object Conservator clean up the works in the BMA’s outdoor sculpture garden. It’s a welcome respite to be on your feet all day. It feels good to do real manual labor for a change. I love to work outdoors and see the fruits of my labor. By washing the sculptures, the movements that my body makes retrace those of the artists who created them. This, in turn, inspires me to reflect on the relationship between art and work and how even the word “work of art” contains a double meaning. In Maintenance Art Manifesto 1969!, feminist artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles describes the common hierarchy of work:

Development: pure individual creation;[…]

Maintenance: keep the individual dust pure

Throughout his manifesto, Ukeles insists that maintenance goes far beyond housework or “housework”. On July 22, 1973, Ukeles, with buckets of water, cleaning supplies and a mop, washed the stairs leading to the entrance to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, as part of a more large series of performances intended to raise awareness of the work of the guards, so often neglected in modern society. As the former curator of contemporary art at the BMA, Helen Molesworth in “House Work and Art Work”. “Incisively, Ukeles does not refer to maintenance as housework or housework, because it is obvious that such work is not limited only to the spaces of domesticity. “

Washing “pure individual creations” in the garden further allows for new art forms, appreciated only by the workers who wash them. The sonic flourishes of sandblasting with a pipe remind me that large bronzes are actually hollow, albeit seemingly solid. The bigger the job, the deeper the sound. Some pieces give off a pleasant musicality as they are pulverized. Seventh Decade Forest (1971-1976) by Louise Nevelson and Noh musicians (1958/1974) Isamu Noguchi records a surprising range of tones as water laps against their metallic surfaces, like rain playing jazz music.

I see my role of washing art in the outdoor garden as an extension of my duties to keep it. Both jobs are forms of stewardship. As protectors of art, museum custodians represent the first line of defense against the destruction or slow degradation of cultural artefacts. Restaurant owners practice a more specialized form of work, requiring many years of education and training. Yet without museum custodians, conservators would have a much more difficult task, constantly having to clean and repair art that has been touched by distracted visitors. Even without people touching them, there would still be a need for conservation, as dust, both inside and outside the museum, perpetually accumulates on the works of art. Dust, the eternal enemy of art!

Two men posted with their limbs in shapes that resemble a large, red, abstract outdoor sculpture behind them.
Sculpture Garden Crew Goofing Off (2021). Photograph by Christine Downie


As a keen observer of demolition sites, I have often noticed workers (and sometimes machines) spraying water on debris as the extendable arms of yellow excavators tear through a building. Initially, I assumed it had been done to prevent the fires. More recently, however, I learned that this practice is intended to control the dust created by the demolition of a building. There are so many materials that go into modern construction, it is inevitable that massive amounts of dust will be raised in the process. Unfortunately, this form of “dust control” fails to prevent the finest particles from blowing up into the air.

When washing outdoor sculptures, we also use a hose to spray them with water. There are often cobwebs in the nooks and crannies of the sculptures and it is quite difficult to spray them. The canvas strands are quite strong and withstand the strong force of water sprayed directly on them. We then wash the sculptures by hand with sponges and water mixed with Orvus, a biodegradable soap. This usually takes care of the cobwebs – for a while. Invariably, however, the cobwebs reappear a few days later – and in the same places too! The evolutionary instincts of the arthropod initiate the same process again, as if nothing had happened.

A few weeks ago, while completing what we thought would be the last cycle of washing and waxing sculptures in the garden before winter, the object conservator noticed small traces of fine particles on the surface. of some of the sculptures. Looking up into the sky towards Hopkins, we discerned a large misty cloud encroaching on the garden like something out of a Stephen King story. Dust from the demolition site next door settled quietly on the sculptures, our most recent efforts canceled out by the smallest of things.

We had to work a bit later in the season because of the dust, but the exterior washing of the sculptures is being done for now. Reflecting on my work in the garden this past fall, I realize that I am something like the spider, my previous efforts will soon be crushed by forces against my will. I understand that I am only an agent in an interconnected network of creation and destruction. Artists will continue to create new works of art which, if deemed worthy by curators, will be protected for years by generations of curators and security guards. Meanwhile, the spider will meticulously build its web over and over, bit by bit, only for museum employees to clean up its work as before, just as universities will ask professional demolition experts to raze campus buildings. so old – stirring up piles of dust in the process – to make way for new structures, which in turn will need to be cleaned and maintained, only to one day be destroyed themselves. And I will be back next spring to start my Sisyphean task again.

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