Since 2009, the Musée d'Orsay has decided to lead a campaign to place certain paintings in its collections behind glass or in "box frames". In practical terms, here is what these fittings consist of, which currently house more than 1,000 works.
This is a preventative conservation measure. The canvas and its support are placed inside a box frame which will absorb and reduce the temperature and humidity variations that can damage the works. This is composed of a polycarbonate back and an optical quality laminated, anti-reflective and anti-UV glass front. As these fittings are not entirely airtight, the variations are not entirely eliminated in the long term and the materials of the works keep their natural adaptation properties, particularly wood, whose qualities in this area are extremely valuable for conservation. As box framing only requires adjusting the rabbet edge of the frame, its installation is entirely reversible. The glass protection face is fitted just a few millimetres from the paint layer.
In some rare cases, the work may be protected by a larger box frame inside which the painting is hung, potentially with its frame. This device, known as a "shadow box framing" is used at the Musée d'Orsay for Monet's Blue Water Lilies and Redon's decorative panels painted for the château of Baron Robert de Domecy.
Why use box framing?
The first reason is therefore to absorb and reduce the sharp temperature and humidity variations that can occur when the work is placed in a different environment (transfer from the reserve collections to the exhibition space, loan to or storage in another museum), but also in our rooms when they are very crowded. The other dangers to take into account are the fire and flood risks, as well as the dust-related risks. In museums like the Musée d'Orsay or the Musée de l’Orangerie, who receive large numbers of visitors in relatively small areas, the deterioration of the works which can be caused by visitors' carelessness, accidental shoving, the temptation to touch the canvases and even vandalism must be prevented. In any event, box framing is an effective means of protection.
When it comes to transportation, the box frames improve the good conservation of the works, in the same way as transportation crates, which nowadays meet standards that are infinitely higher than those in the past in terms of absorbing climate variations and vibrations.
The aim is not to place all the paintings in box frames: in each case, the advantages and disadvantages are weighed according to the fragility of the work, its public presentation and its dimensions. Large formats are not included in this box framing due to their weight, as the risk is greater than the protection offered by the glass. Transfers for loans can be the ideal time to install works in box frames, according to the fragility and the exhibition conditions. In this case, the receiving institution may be asked to cover the financial responsibility of the operation. The regional museums, many of which receive loans from our establishment, are rarely asked to make a financial contribution to this preventative conservation policy, with the exception of large operations such as the Normandy Impressionist festival or Marseille-Provence, as the Musée d'Orsay strives to take full responsibility for the territorial dimensions of its duties as a national museum, without placing too heavy a burden on its partners.
What is the impact for the public?
The front protection with the latest generation anti-reflective glass, which is almost invisible and perfectly colourless, in no way impedes the viewing of the work. The artist's touch, so important in Impressionist painting, or the delicateness of the colours used are still visible in all their subtlety.
A commitment for the future
The box framing installations draw on several decades of practice in artwork protection and are part of a preventative conservation policy linked to the specificity of a museum that receives 3.5 million visitor per year. The aim is not to replace museum security guards, nor to move the works around more, as demonstrated by the box framing of the Van Goghs in the Gachet collection, which are never loaned due to a gift clause. These measures seem the most appropriate response to one of the essential duties of our museums: to conserve and transmit our cultural heritage to future generations in the best possible conditions. Moreover, the recent major exhibitions organised in Paris with international loans demonstrate that our establishment is not alone in its protection policy.
This effort will thus continue in the future and will benefit from the latest developments; our teams ensure the continued improvement of technical processes whose sophistication guarantees the effectiveness of the measures without detracting from the visitor's pleasure.