How to preserve paintings on plaster walls?
November 5, 2006 4:10 AM   Subscribe

The third floor of my neighbor's home was made into a children's playroom many years ago and hasn't been touched since. There's very interesting (and possibly offensive) handpainted artwork on the (plaster) walls he would like to preserve, but hasn't a clue how to do it or who to talk to for advice. How should he proceed?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders to Home & Garden (4 answers total)
By preserve do you mean somehow remove the artwork from the wall?

You can do that, but it would likely be an involved and expensive process - Basically the face of the mural would be stablilized with a mesh like canvas, and the wall would be cut away, and then the fragments would be remounted to another plaster substrate, and the canvas face removed.

This mural at the American Folk Art Museum in New York was rescued and preserved in this way, and your neighbor could probably contact the museum to find out where to get more information on how the process was done....

I can't imagine wanting to do something so involved for this artwork. If you just want it to last, simple cleaning with warm damp rag with a little dishwashing liquid would clean the walls (Cardinal rule is test first!!!!!!!)

In general, something like this artwork will likely last quite a long time on it's own without much effort.

The newspaper clippings are another story...
posted by extrabox at 8:27 AM on November 5, 2006

Extrabox's method is, essentially, the preferred one for transferring plaster murals. If you want to retain them in place, there are some fairly simple assessments and treatments that a relative novice can perform, but if you want to take them off, you'd best talk to a professional conservator or historic preservationist. Penn has a very good Historic Preservation program, perhaps your neighbor could contact them and see if there is a chance of this being used as a student project? In my Historic Preservation program, we were always looking for small, interesting preservation projects in the area for students to get involved in, and this might be just the right scope and subject matter (plaster murals, not minstrel art, though I understand that is a very trendy area of interest in the folk art/antiques community right now) for HP students.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:47 AM on November 5, 2006

He's looking to preserve them in place, wouldn't want to cut them out of the wall.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:43 AM on November 5, 2006

OK, well, the Penn HP program recommendation still stands, but to preserve them in place, the first thing to do is a gentle washing, just as Extrabox suggested (use water with very little dishwashing liquid, and small, circular strokes, with little pressure). The next step is to assess the condition of the plaster. Are there any holes, chips, or cracks (more than 1/8")? Are there any bowed-out sections of wall, where slight pressure makes the plaster move? Is there any access to the back side of the walls? If so, are there many broken "keys" (the blobs of plaster that squeeze through the lath and hold the plaster to the lath)?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, there are things that need to be done. His/her best bet at that point is to consult a professional or (if he/she is handy to some degree) a book with detailed procedures for plaster repair and maintenance. I don't have a specific title in mind, but The National Park Service's Preservation Brief 21 is a good start.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:30 PM on November 5, 2006

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