Behind the Scenes at the DAM

How the DAM Uses Rare-Earth Magnets with Art Installations

Many of us have seen small, super-strong magnets in toys like Buckyballs sets and NeoCubes.  These are called rare-earth magnets as they are made using elements such as neodymium and samarium that are classified as rare earth metals.  These magnets appear in all kinds of everyday items including jewelry, guitars, speakers, cordless tools and even hybrid vehicles.

But how many of us have ever considered hanging art with magnets?

The Denver Art Museum's conservation department has been utilizing magnets to install a range of art objects.  Beginning with the re-installation of the American Indian Galleries in 2010, the Innu (Naskapi) woman’s dress, below. and Innu (Naskapi) child’s coat, at the top of this page, are secured to their mounts with neodymium magnets instead of straight pins, a common tool for securing textiles.  Where pins would have left permanent holes in the caribou skin of these garments, magnets are far less invasive.

In the photography exhibit Dirty Pictures, DAM conservators used magnets to make two large, unframed photographs by Jungjin Lee appear to float in front of the walls.  Each photograph was attached to a slightly smaller backing board with removable, Japanese paper hinges.  Rare-earth magnets secured to the reverse side of the backing boards aligned with metal targets secured to the wall.

Neodymium magnets played a very important role in the DAM’s exhibition Threads of Heaven.  Key Chinese textiles in the show needed special care and traditional installation methods would have potentially damaged these delicate works.  The silk imperial cover or hanging, above, underwent extensive conservation treatment just prior to exhibition.  Its sheer size, weight and fragile state required extra support while hanging in the gallery.  To accommodate this, a conservator stitched a swath of fabric along the top edge of the hanging’s new lining.  This fabric was draped over a steel slat and secured in place with approximately 40 neodymium magnets.  Uniform tension and support were provided with strategic placement of the magnets.

Another very large silk hanging on display (above) was held in place by numerous, small rare-earth magnets placed on the front of the hanging along the top edge. The strength of the magnets exerted enough contact to hold the work in place against the metal slat behind. 

 

The magnets were sympathetically toned (above) to the surrounding color of the hanging.

The 10 rank badges on exhibit had a previous hanging system that caused undue stress to the objects when they were manipulated into place.  This caused the couched embroidery to break, releasing the metallic threads from the pattern of the design. The existing system was replaced with appropriately sized pockets to hold small neodymium magnets (above).

The magnets easily are placed in the pockets at installation and can be removed when the object is returned to storage.  The ease of installation means that the object is placed gently onto the wall without any flexing or bending, thereby preventing damage.

Informed care was taken to determine the proper magnets to use in each situation.  Too little magnetic strength would not secure the object sufficiently; too much strength could cause deformation to the surface of the object.  Many factors including application, chemical and structural composition, pull force, shear force, weight, size and shape helped the DAM conservation department to choose the proper magnets.  Also, the department researched applications and techniques other conservators and institutions have developed.  Additional resources include articles and information from the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and the Objects Specialty Group of the AIC. 

Conservators are using rare-earth magnets in treatments, too.

It is important to note that neodymium magnets are available in a variety of sizes and profiles and are extremely strong.   Their strength can make them difficult to handle and potentially dangerous if sensible handling precautions are not taken.

Michal Mikesell is a conservation assistant in the conservation department at the Denver Art Museum. Michal has been at the DAM since 2010 and her favorite artwork that has been on view here is Fatherhood by Wes Hempel.