When it comes to pests, with an entire museum's collection on the line, conservators don't mess around. At the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, objects conservator Kari Dodson recently had to figure out how to "eliminate all life" from a group of wooden sculptures that were arriving from Mali. The sculptures were created in 2007 by Amahigueré Dolo, and had since been installed in the artist's studio, planted in a rectangular bed of local red soil. The installation, titled Components of the World (Adouron Bew), was selected to complement the ongoing exhibition ReCollecting Dogon, which showcases objects collected by the museum's founders in the 50s and 70s. Because of import laws, the Menil knew Dolo's soil wouldn't make it past customs—so in order to stage the installation, Dodson first had to find a suitable substitute, then de-bug both soil and sculptures before they crossed the threshold of the museum.
"Good luck making this sound sexy," Dodson tells Creators over the phone. Compared to restoration treatments—and their dramatic before-and-after effects—such preventive conservation efforts may not seem like the most glamorous part of the job, but they are essential, and the tech involved in Dodson's treatment is awe-inspiring in its precision. When the 86 sculptures arrived at destination, they were promptly put inside a gigantic "anoxia chamber" large enough to contain the four crates that housed them.
"It's a pretty well-established technique in conservation," explains Dodson. "I build a heat-sealed bag that's made from layers of plastic and metal, and is therefore completely impermeable to gases and vapors. I take all the air out, then pump humidified nitrogen into it, and keep it in those conditions for a certain period. In this case, I did it for seven weeks." During that time, Dodson had to monitor oxygen levels inside the bag, and ensure they didn't get much higher than 0.1%. If so, the entire process would need to be repeated, with everything vacuumed out, and the nitrogen pumped back in through a tiny port.
The anoxia chamber is incredibly thorough—no matter where they're hiding, bugs can't get away from a lack of oxygen—and it's safe enough for wooden objects, which can be prone to contraction or expansion if treated with freezing temperatures or heat. In the end, Dodson says she did manage to clean off quite a bit of evidence of insect activity. "Whether they were alive when they got here, I can't say for sure. You just never know, and you don't want to put your entire collection at risk."
That same principle guided her treatment of the substitute red soil that was needed to complete the installation. According to the show's curator, Paul R. Davis, the most important thing to Dolo was the color—so the conservator set out to find a match. "Dolo's soil looked pretty fine-grained, and the only things we were finding in garden centers that were richly colored were a gravelly texture." Eventually, a colleague suggested mar mound clay—the kind used on baseball diamonds. "It turned out to be just the right color and Dolo loved the idea. The bonus for me was that I could do what I needed to do, and handle it a little more roughly than I would an art object."
Dodson had the clay shipped directly to a company that treats household objects for bed bugs. The process may ring familiar to some unlucky readers: They placed the soil in a large converted van that functions like a giant oven, with sensors inside the heat compartment to make sure the right temperature is reached for an adequate amount of time. Afterwards, the bug-free soil was finally allowed into the museum—and paired up with the bug-free sculptures.
Amahigueré Dolo's installation is on view in the African garden gallery at the Menil Collection, as part of the exhibition ReCollecting Dogon, curated by Paul R. Davis. The show remains open through July 9.