Displaying Polaroids by Andy Warhol

As opposed to paintings and sculptures, exhibitions of works on paper present particular challenges due to their sensitivity to light.  Exposure to indoor and natural light can cause irreversible damage including premature yellowing and fading of the image.  To mitigate the potential damage, museums often use UV-filtered plexi-glass for framing and low light levels in galleries with paper and photos.  The following post describes a two-step resolution for the display of highly light sensitive Polaroid photographs by Andy Warhol.

From 1970 – 1987 Warhol shot a myriad of Polaroid photographs, which he later used as studies for his paintings and prints.  Celebrity highlights include Mick Jagger, lead singer of the Rolling Stones, Olympic figure skater Dorothy Hamill, and singer Syliva Williams (Mammy) .

Andy Warhol, Mammy (Sylvia Williams) (left) and Mammy (right)

In 2008, the Cantor Arts Center became one of 183 colleges and universities nationwide to receive a gift of Warhol photographs through the Andy Warhol Photographic Legacy Program established by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in 2007.  Through the Legacy Program, the museum acquired over 120 original Polaroids, many of which were unknown to the public.  As part of the gift contract, each institution agreed to mount an exhibition of the photographs; this was done at the Center in December 2008 with an exhibition titled Warhol Photographs: Recent Acquisition.

Portraits of Maja Sacher-Stehlin, Dorothy Hamill, and Vitas Gerulaitis, including chair and lobsters

In preparation for the exhibition, museum staff researched methods for displaying Polaroids, and in the process, learned that Polaroids were extremely sensitive to light.  This prompted questions amongst the staff as to whether the educational benefit of displaying the Polaroids outweighed the need to preserve them in their current condition.  At the same time, the announcement of the discontinuation of Polaroid film sparked further concern between the museum’s conservation department and curatorial staff.  What precautions should be taken to ensure the longevity of the images?  Should the museum consider new ways of displaying and storing the Polaroids now that they are no longer being made?

In support of the museum’s role as an educational institution, the staff unanimously decided to display the Polaroids for the benefit of the visitors.  However, the Center’s staff decided to take two precautions for the installation.  The first step was to dim the lights in the gallery to five foot-candles.  A “foot-candle” is a unit of measurement for the intensity or “illuminance” of light.  As a reference, galleries with paintings and sculptures range upwards from 15 foot-candles, while rooms with prints and photographs range from 5-6 foot-candles.

Due to the extreme sensitivity of Polaroid film, the museum staff also agreed to followup with a second measure—an opaque covering for each frame.  Holly, one of the museums’s preparators, designed a flap to completely cover the photographs.   The bottom edge was weighted and the flap was secured to the back of the frame.  This design would ensure that the photographs were not exposed to excessive light even while the museum was closed.

Front view and side view

Visitors were instructed to lift the flap in order to view the artworks.

The staff was very pleased with the outcome.  Not only had we achieved the goal of displaying the Polaroids to the public, but we also ensured that they would not be damaged in the process.  However, we learned shortly after that this system had one downside.  It seemed that many visitors were confused by the flaps and did not lift them to see the artwork as instructed by the nearby signage.  We agreed that the flaps would be a work in progress, and we look forward to the next opportunity to exhibit this collection of Warhol Polaroids.

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