Conservation: our fragile inheritance

Edvard Munch’s sometimes untraditional use of materials and experimental techniques give his pictures a completely unique appearance. They also pose a number of challenges for the Museum’s Conservation Department, which is responsible not only for the care of the collection, but also for conducting research about it.

The paintings, prints and drawings of Munchmuseet are not always like the artefacts found in other museums. Some of our artworks are half-finished sketches, others have water stains and tears, speckles along the edges, or areas where the paint has fallen off. Some look pale and faded, some works are on paper that has yellowed, and the surfaces of many paintings are matte. A visitor might be forgiven for thinking that no one is looking after the pictures, but in fact there are good reasons why the collection looks as it does.

The paintings look as they do primarily because of Munch’s untraditional painting techniques and uses of materials, and – just as importantly – how Munch himself treated the paintings, and how later on they were treated by others. When the City of Oslo inherited the collection after Munch’s death, some paintings were found stored in outdoor studios or in the cellars under his house at Ekely. City officials even found a large snowball in the garden, which when thawed turned out to contain fragments of the painting Workers in Snow (1913–15). Although many paintings were also found stored indoors, there is no doubt that damage resulted from Munch’s rough handling of his works and his approach to storage. In addition, earlier attempts at conservation have left their mark.

A delicate balance

Today MUNCH has a well-equipped Conservation Department, in which paintings conservators, paper conservators, art technicians and museum scientists work to care for, and conduct research into, Munch’s art. These professionals devote a great deal of time to assessing the condition of works and deciding whether they can be exhibited or loaned to another museum. There is great interest in exhibiting Munch’s art, and some paintings are out on loan almost continually. The Museum is constantly required to find a balance between looking after the artworks and putting them on display.