From diligently rolling a nearly century-old 20-foot canvas painting to freezing and digitizing self-destructing celluloid film, the Wolfsonian-FIU’s collections manager and conservator, Silvia Manrique, likens her work to that of a doctor, but when asked to describe her latest projects, it’s clear she’s giving these fragments of the past more than a typical check-up.
“Even though the museum is small, the collection is big, and the efforts we go through to keep it safe are big too,” says Manrique.
Manrique and her team’s efforts maintaining, storing, and restoring a collection of over 200,000 objects are the subjects of an event on Friday, March 24, titled “Into the Stacks: The Doctor Is In” at the Wolfsonian-FIU.
Nathaniel Sandler, director of Bookleggers Library, a book exchange program inside the Bakehouse Art Complex in Wynwood, will host the event as part of the Wolfsonian-FIU’s “Into the Stacks” series, which highlights different aspects of the museum and its collection throughout the year.
Sandler and the Wolfsonian-FIU have collaborated on “Into the Stacks” events since 2018 after he received a grant from the Knight Foundation for Crypt Cracking, a program that hosts events exploring the often unseen permanent collections at museums across Miami.
During “Into the Stacks: The Art Doctor Is In,” attendees will get a behind-the-scenes account of different restoration projects Manrique and her team have tackled in the past, including before-and-after picture comparisons and a live paper-cleaning and repair demonstration.
“I want people to learn what conservation is in a broader sense,” Manrique says. “Conservation is treatment, but it is also research and also preventative care.”
Manrique has been involved in the care and preservation of the Wolfsonian-FIU’s collection — one of the country’s largest university art collections — since 2014.
The projects she’s tackled since joining the museum’s team, like preserving the negatives of pictures taken almost a century ago by architectural firm Schultze & Weaver — which include blueprints and sketches of Miami’s Freedom Tower, the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, and New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel — will be among topics in the evening’s conversation.
Manrique says the work she performed with the negatives is one of the many challenging situations conservationists face. Sometimes, she laments, the best a conservationist can do is maintain an object’s condition, and repair or restoration is not an option. The volatile nature of the material the negatives are made of causes them to self-destruct with age, and after nearly a century of degradation, Manrique and her team were forced to essentially freeze them in time in order to prevent them from further destruction.
Before placing them in their icy resting place, Manrique digitally transferred copies of the negatives for public accessibility.
“To me, it’s really interesting to know that it’s not just a regular building; it has a history," says Manrique, “Something that benefits us now and makes us who we are, comes from the past. It’s important to remember our history but also let future people enjoy what we have now or what we’ve had in the past. I think it’s our responsibility.”
“It’s a big responsibility, and sometimes it can be overwhelming, particularly with these very large projects, but it’s very satisfying to me to know that we had something that wasn’t in the best shape or wasn’t stored properly, and you do something to it, and now it’s better,” says Manrique.
The other grant awarded to the museum will fund additional furniture with drawers to accommodate the thousands of paper works that are part of the collection. This, Manrique adds, required the transfer of thousands of stored three-dimensional objects in the collection to the Annex — the museum’s off-site storage facility, which houses the rest of the vast collection not on display. The fragility of many of these objects makes this particularly challenging, says Manrique.
“Some of the objects are made out of glass or ceramic, and they have different shapes, sizes, and weight,” Manrique says.
The repairs are done so immaculately that it's tough to tell the difference from the rest of the painting, but Manrique tracks the perimeter of the once-damaged regions with surgical precision.
She hopes that in the next decade, the Annex, which is currently only open to museum staff and whose location is kept under wraps, will be opened to the public as its own exhibition space. To Manrique, public accessibility is just as important as preservation.
"I think we are a result of our past," says Manrique, "We are not starting from scratch; we are the result of our history and our ancestors and the people who discovered and created things in the past that enrich our lives. By saving things from the past, we learn from the past, and it informs our present."
– Mathew Messa, ArtburstMiami.com
"Into the Stacks: The Art Doctor Is In." 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, March 24, at the Wolfsonian-FIU, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-531-1001; wolfsonian.org. Admission is free with RSVP.