As the conservation assistant for the African art reinstallation project, my role is to protect and support the African art collection and loans at the NCMA. I assess the condition of the works to ensure their stability while on view and review gallery designs for conservation concerns. Essentially, I have been involved in this project from conception to reinstallation—a timeline of five years! The new galleries open to the public at the end of June.
Stacey Kirby, left, and other NCMA staff members look over objects on loan from Bennett College for display in the new, expanded African art galleries.
Consulting conservator Corey Smith Riley helps stabilize objects before display.
Much of my role is to be an advocate for the art during the evolution of this project. I have followed the collection’s journey from its deinstallation in West Building, to the conservation lab for analysis and treatment, and finally to the reinstallation in the new gallery in East Building. We’re fortunate to have consulting conservator Corey Smith Riley on our team. She is helping with the conservation treatment of any work of art that requires stabilizing before display. Stabilizing could mean removing dust and debris with a light vacuum and soft brush, or repairing damaged feathers, or consolidating a mask with structural issues due to tunneling from a wood-boring insect.
We’ve been able to bring works out of storage that have not been on view in over a decade. We’re assessing and treating any condition issues and creating new mounts to ensure they are displayed safely.
We’ve been able to bring works out of storage that have not been on view in over a decade. We’re assessing and treating any condition issues and creating new mounts to ensure they are displayed safely in the new gallery. We’re also grateful to our lenders (including Bennett College, which is loaning 10 works from its impressive collection, and several local Raleigh collectors) and are happy to conserve these works as well.
We are lucky to have such beautiful and special African costumes and textiles to share with visitors. But their conservation presents a challenge, as lower light levels and special approaches to mounting are required. Cumulative light exposure causes fading of dyes and leads to the deterioration of the fibers. The damage from light exposure is irreversible, and thus we follow a long-term rotation schedule. One of the benefits of moving the African art collection to East Building is that we will have a simpler approach to light control. The lighting system, in combination with our rotation schedule, offers the public the opportunity to view more of our collection and loans over the lifespan of this gallery.
The new space is also beneficial in that there is simply more of it! The gallery is three times as large as the old gallery and will have twice as many works of art on view. From a conservation standpoint, more square footage means more space to experience each work from a safe distance. We are using this space to create protective boundaries as well as to showcase each piece in a way that lets visitors truly enjoy it.
Stacey Kirby prepares raffia for re-creating a costume for display of the antelope headdress.
Stacey Kirby and Exhibition Designer Shannon Harris work on a display of the Sande Society helmet mask.
Finally, I am re-creating raffia costumes with customized mounts to accompany two of the masks in our collection, the antelope headdress and the Sande Society helmet mask. I have been working closely with curators to research materials, construction techniques, and appropriate display for the specific cultural groups for both pairs of costumes and masks. Rand Esser of the Design Department built the interior metal structure (or mount) to support the costume and mask, based on my research. The full-body costumes that I am stitching together from raffia and cloth will be supported by the metal structure and archival Ethafoam. These costume re-creations will offer more context to the masks and look beautiful on display alongside other large pieces such as our Egungun costume and a stunning 6-foot-tall Bwa mask from lender Rhonda Wilkerson.
Stacey Kirby is a former conservation assistant at the NCMA.
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