Kunstsammlung NRW

Freshened up: on the restoration of a physically accessible work of art

Museum conservators deal with more than just paper and paint. At the latest with Joseph Beuys, works of art have consisted of the most various materials, and in recent and contemporary art, spatial installations often assume vast dimensions. But in the everyday life of a museum, such works are handled with just as much professionalism as the so-called “flatware,” i.e. works that are framed and hung on walls.

Over the past year, the conservator Nina Quabeck has supervised the comprehensive restoration of Thomas Hirschhorn’s “Intensif-Station” (Intensive Care) at the K21. 

For #32, we asked about the individual phases of this process. With numerous images, Quabeck provided us with an exclusive look at her workstation.



Thomas Hirschhorn’s “Intensif-Station” (Intensive Care)

Thomas Hirschhorn’s “Intensif-Station” (Intensive Care) was conceived especially for the K21. In addition to five large sculptures and a series of collages, this physically accessible work – which extends through two exhibition galleries – consists of objects of use and materials from everyday life. Among other items, we find secondhand furniture, discarded wheelchairs, brown adhesive tape, cardboard, wooden slats, building foam, and fluorescent tubes.  

Within the international museum landscape, the presentation of such a large and complex work by Thomas Hirschhorn on a permanent basis represents something quite special. While many museums preserve works by the Swiss artist in their storage depots, only at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen do we find an artist’s room by Hirschhorn that remains on permanent display! A considerable challenge for restores…

Point of departure: OR room lighting on paper

When entering these galleries, you are reminded of the emergency room of a hospital. Beneath flickering monitors and harsh OR room illumination, you walk past hospital equipment, empty water bottles, and plastic chairs. Over the years, however, this extreme lighting situation – an integral element of the artistic concept – has brought about changes in the collages. During our examination, we found that the red medium used by the artist to paint and inscribe the collages was no longer blood red, as at the beginning, but has now bleached out markedly.

A proposal from the artist: rework the collages

The brief “shelf-life” of these light-sensitive artworks has reduced the hitherto valid collecting criteria of durability, authenticity, and intrinsic value to an absurdity, demanding a changed curatorial and conservation practice. After producing precise and comprehensive documentation, and in order to make it possible to present this portion of the installation for as long as possible in the form originally intended by the artist, we decided to follow Thomas Hirschhorn’s own suggestion by allowing the collages to be reworked in his studio. When it comes to the restoration of contemporary art, a close collaboration on a basis of trust with the artist is a factor of incalculable value.

Preparation: examining the materials

In preparation, a list of all of the materials used was prepared in collaboration with the artist’s studio. These painting media – felt tip and ballpoint pens from a stationary supplier – were then examined for their lightfastness by the program in paper conservation at the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart.

Regarding aging under exposure to light, the ballpoint and felt tip pens originally used by the artist performed poorly. Pens containing pigments furnished by suppliers of artist materials, on the other hand, displayed very good durability.

Reworking in the studio

Based on these test results, it was predominantly the light-fast pens that were used for the reworking. The collages were removed from the K21 and transported to the artist’s studio in Paris. There, they were restored by an assistant under Hirschhorn’s supervision.

Digitalization of the restoration process

In the spirit of permanence, the installation was digitalized after being reworked in collaboration with Recom Art Care in Berlin. In comparison with photography, a digital scan offers various advantages for the restoration: the precise documentation of the surface serves as a reference allowing us to assess damage or changes to the work of art over an extended period of time. With enlargement on a computer screen, a conservator with a practiced eye can identify every dust particle, crack, dent, or fine paper fiber.

The scanning process itself is quite involved: the images are set up on the scan table and centered precisely so that the scanner can record them optimally. During the scanning process, the light sources not move across the object; instead the entire scanning table moves slowly along under the light channel. A scan lasts between 15 and 25 minutes, depending upon the resolution and the size of the object.      

For the archive: documentation of the original condition

Finally, this image data is examined on the computer. Now, proofs are created and compared with the original. It is important that this be carried out not with the naked eye, but instead with the help of a spectrometer, which measures color values with precision. The aim of this procedure, developed by the digitalization service-provider, is to determine whether the spectral values (CIELAB) of the original are consistent with those shown by the data and the proofs. The result is a digital reference that can be measured objectively.

At the same time, an investment in the future for the Conservation Department of the Kunstsammlung: now, the generation of a digital copy of the original conditions of the collages as reconstituted in the artist’s studio can be preserved for the future.



Nina Quabeck
has worked at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen as a paper conservator for 12 years. Her enthusiasm for her occupation remains undiminished. For all of her colleagues at the museum, visits to the museum’s  Conservation Department always means a fascinating look behind the scenes – and given the complexity of this specialization, a fond reminiscence of distance schooldays preoccupied with chemistry or physics.

Marlen Boerngen, who made photographs and materials available for this article, wrote her master's thesis in 2014 on the restoration of “Intensif-Station,” and graduated with a Master of Arts from the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart. Currently, she is a trainee in paper conservation at the Conservation and Restoration Center of the state capital of Düsseldorf.