Art sculpture

Demolition dust in the sculpture garden of the Baltimore Museum of Art prompts reflections on work and preservation

Demolition dust in the sculpture garden of the Baltimore Museum of Art prompts reflections on work and preservation

Our collaborator Dereck Stafford’s day job Mangus is a museum custodian at the Baltimore Museum of Art, but Derek also works as a member of the museum’s curatorial team dusting the sculptures in the sculpture garden. Recently, dusting tasks collided with the demolition of a building adjacent to the museum, on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, triggering Derek’s thoughts on demolitions in general and the work of artists and curators. Enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at a different kind of museum work. All photomontages by Dereck Stafford Mangus.

Johns Hopkins Mattin Center Demolition #1 (2021). Photomontage by Dereck Stafford Mangus

If I could do it all over again, I’d be a demolition professional. I find the sensory abundance of a torn building deeply satisfying. The crackle of falling debris or a wall cascading to earth like a wave of structured mass disintegrating; broken pieces and shattered pieces; the hanging pieces, detritus and dust, are cathartic. To raze a building is the anarchist’s revenge on architecture.

Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t be happy to be woken up by the cacophony of controlled demolition outside my bedroom window every morning. But if this were my profession, at a remote site, far from home, with permission granted and the proper equipment – headphones, helmet, goggles – I’d be like a kid in a candy store, tearing down buildings with total joy. . And get paid to do it! Monetary compensation would crush any residual feelings of guilt I might retain from adolescence when much smaller acts of destruction were considered socially unacceptable.

Johns Hopkins University (JHU) recently demolished its Center Mattina three-building, $17 million arts complex that opened on its Homewood campus in 2001. As described by Edward Gunts in The architect’s journal, the University removed 20-year-old structures to “make way for the new Hopkins Student Center, a $250 million, 150,000 square foot ‘village’ for student programs and activities designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group ( BIG) and Shepley Bulfinch, with David Rockwell Group as interior designer and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates as landscape architect. It all sounds really impressive. But leaving aside the question of not preserving an award-winning building complex that hasn’t that 20 years, what does that suggest about the future of the arts at JHU Destroying the arts center in favor of a student center might sound great for students outside of the arts, but what about for art students (and their parents)? And what about the wider art community in Baltimore? Or even right next door at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA)?

The demolition phase of the project occupied most of the fall. There is something almost poignant about a building being flattened in the fall. It’s poetic, about the cultural and natural signifiers of death and decay momentarily merging in this fleeting moment, the leaves falling like so many bricks. And the dust! Ominous clouds of fine particles blow from the site, far beyond, settling on everything in their path like an almost imperceptible layer of snow.


Photo collage of a demolition site, with a crumpled, half-demolished building captured across the street outside a fence.
Demolition #2 of the Johns Hopkins Mattin Center (2021). Photomontage by Dereck Stafford Mangus

I work at the BMA. My full-time job is as a museum custodian. But for the past two years, during the warmer months on one of my two weekends off, I’ve helped the object conservator clean the works in the open-air sculpture garden of the BMA. It’s a welcome respite from being on your feet all day. It feels good to do real manual labor for a change. I enjoy working outdoors and seeing the fruits of my labor. By washing the sculptures, the movements of my body trace those of the artists who created them. This, in turn, inspires me to reflect on the relationship between art and work and how even the word ‘work of art’ contains a double meaning. In Maintenance Art Manifesto 1969!feminist artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles describes the common hierarchy of work:

Development: pure individual creation;[…]

Maintenance: keep the dust out of the individual pure

Throughout his manifesto, Ukeles insists that maintenance goes far beyond domestic work or “housework”. On July 22, 1973, Ukeles, with buckets of water, cleaning supplies and a mop, washed the staircase leading to the entrance to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, as part of a larger series of performances aimed at raising awareness of the job of goalkeepers, so often overlooked in modern society. As Helen Molesworth, former curator of contemporary art at the BMA, writes in “House Work and Art Work”. “Incisively, Ukeles does not refer to maintenance as domestic work, or domestic work, because it is obvious that this work is not limited only to the spaces of domesticity. »

Washing the “pure individual creations” in the garden further allows for new forms of art, which only the workers who wash them can enjoy. The sonic flourishes elicited when blasting them with a pipe remind me that large bronzes are actually hollow, though seemingly solid. The bigger the work, the deeper the sound. Some pieces give off a pleasant musicality as they are doused. Seventh Decade Forest (1971-1976) by Louise Nevelson and Noh musicians (1958/1974) by Isamu Noguchi record a startling range of tones as water slaps against their metal surfaces, like rain playing jazz music.

I see my role of washing the art in the outdoor garden as an extension of my duties to keep it. Both jobs are forms of stewardship. As protectors of art, museum custodians represent the first line of defense against the destruction or slow decay of cultural artifacts. Conservators practice a more specialized form of work, requiring many years of education and training. Yet, without museum caretakers, conservators would have a much more difficult task, having to constantly clean and repair works of art that have been touched by distracted visitors. Even without people touching them, there would still be a need for conservation, as dust – inside and outside the museum – perpetually accumulates on the works of art. Dust, eternal enemy of art!

Two men posted with their limbs in shapes that look like a large red abstract outdoor sculpture behind them.
Sculpture Garden Crew Goofing Off (2021). Photograph by Christine Downie


As a keen observer of demolition sites, I often noticed workers (and sometimes machines) spraying water on the debris as the outstretched arms of the yellow excavators tore through a building. Initially I assumed this was done to prevent fires. More recently, however, I learned that this practice is intended to control dust created by the demolition of a building. There are so many materials that go into modern construction that it is inevitable that massive amounts of dust will be kicked up in the process. Unfortunately, this form of “dust control” fails to prevent the finest particles from spreading through the air.

When washing the outdoor sculptures, we also use a hose to spray them with water. There are often cobwebs in the nooks and crannies of the sculptures and it is quite difficult to pulverize them. The webbing strands are quite sturdy and withstand the strong force of water blowing directly on them. We then wash the sculptures by hand with sponges and water mixed with Orvus, a biodegradable soap. This usually takes care of cobwebs – for a while. Invariably, however, cobwebs reappear days later – and in the same places too! The evolutionary instincts of the arthropod initiate the same process again, as if nothing had happened.

A few weeks ago, while completing what we thought would be the last round of washing and waxing the sculptures in the garden before winter, the artefact conservator noticed small traces of fine particles on the surfaces of some of the sculptures. Looking up in the sky towards Hopkins, we discerned a large misty cloud encroaching on the garden like something out of a Stephen King story. Dust from the nearby demolition site was quietly settling on the carvings, our most recent efforts undone by the smallest of things.

We had to work a little later in the season because of the dust, but the exterior washing of the sculptures is done for now. Reflecting on my work in the garden this past fall, I realize that I am something like the spider, my previous efforts soon to be undone by forces against my will. I understand that I am only an agent in an interconnected network of creation and destruction. Artists will continue to create new works of art that, if deemed worthy by curators, will be protected for years to come by generations of curators and security guards. Meanwhile, the spider will meticulously build its web again and again, strand by strand, only for museum workers to wash away its work like before, just like universities will have professional demolition experts razing campus buildings not so old – stirring up heaps of dust in the process – to make way for new structures, which in turn will need to be cleaned and maintained, only to be destroyed themselves one day. And I will return next spring to begin my Sisyphean task all over again.