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Subject: Human skin

Human skin

From: Emily O'Reilly <emily.o'reilly<-a>
Date: Thursday, March 20, 2014
Flavia Perugini <fperugini<-a t->mfa< . >org> writes

>I have been asked to advise on the conservation and mounting of a 6
>inch diameter piece of human skin.  The skin is about to be
>surgically removed from the artist's body.  The artist's intent is
>to mount the skin on a medallion once it has has dried and shrunk.

We have on long term loan the tiny house made from the skin of
artist Donald Rodney (1961 - 1998) "My Mother, My Father, My Sister,
My Brother" (1997).  The work "In the House of my Father" is a
photograph of him holding it (if you google it you can find plenty
of images).  The house is a work in its own right and is
occasionally requested for display alongside one of the 3 versions
of the photograph.

Rodney suffered from the debilitating blood disorder Sickle cell and
collected the skin during various operations he endured.  I am
pretty sure the skin was totally untreated--except for medical
treatments used during the operation, as when the work is unpacked
there is always the faint smell of antiseptic.

Although very delicate the work is in remarkable condition, held
together with Scotch tape and pins, it has collapsed slightly, but
in the last 10 years I have worked with it, it looks as unstable as
it always did.  The last time it travelled a few years ago to London
one pin had slightly slipped but had caused no damage.

It sits in its own little Perspex stand, literally sitting over a
square of Perspex to hold it in position, it is then stored in an
acid free four-flap box, inside another acid free card box which is
then placed in a well-padded with Plastazote wooden crate.  It
travels in this crate and is also stored like this in our most
stable store for works of art on paper at about 55% RH and 18-19
deg. C. When it is displayed it is treated with such reverence that
having the light levels at no more than 50 lux is never a problem.
The colour has faded slightly but not so noticeably.

At one installation I met Rodney's partner who told me that she had
more of his skin at home, she was under no illusion that the work
would last forever, and joked that we could make another house from
the skin she still had.  I believe that is one reason why she never
sold the work, that she thought it wouldn't last--but so far it is
holding up well.

I think the critical thing for you is how the artist intends to
"mount" the skin and the subsequent conditions it is kept in.
Rodney's skin is lightly adhered with the Scotch tape (the pins
being merely symbolic not particularly structural) and simply sits
on its stand.  I think there has been some shrinkage over the last
17-18 years but definitely no loss or evidence of tensions.  I would
suggest that you advise the artist to keep it as simple as possible!

I hope you find this example useful--happy to send you images if you
need them.  Conservation is never dull!

Emily O'Reilly
Principal Conservator Paper
Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

                  Conservation DistList Instance 27:36
                 Distributed: Saturday, March 22, 2014
                       Message Id: cdl-27-36-002
Received on Thursday, 20 March, 2014

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