Art conservator shares tricks of trade

Alice Berry '21, Deputy Editor-in-Chief

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Head of Conversation at the St. Louis Art Museum Hugh Shockey ’96 visited Rhodes to discuss the intersections of art and science on Feb. 6.

“Conservators take care of objects… my job is to maintain the physical and aesthetic integrity of a piece of art,” Shockey said.

Art conservation lives at the crossroads of studio art, art history and science. During his four years at Rhodes, Shockey studied  in the Art Department. He spent his summers in his native Arkansas—taking chemistry classes at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to receive his necessary scientific training. 

“It’s been a real pleasure just watching him go out and do this,”  Shockey’s former professor David McCarthy said. 

Shockey has worked as a responder for disaster recovery of cultural collections at Gulf Island National Seashore, Florida during the 2004 hurricane season. When he worked at the Smithsonian as a conservator, the museum collaborated with the Haitian government, local communities and other international partners to help restore and protect Haiti’s cultural heritage after the 2010 earthquakes.

Shockey, who is also an educator on the topics of preservation, conservation and disaster recovery of cultural collections, detailed the very technical aspects of his work. He is a specialist in objects rather than paintings or textile—meaning he most frequently deals with sculpture. He told a particular story about Washington Resigning His Commission, which was one of the sculptures he worked on while at the Smithsonian. Because of the sculpture’s display, visitors kept hitting the scroll in Washington’s hand, causing it to break off. Shockey used a combination of adhesives to repair the sculpture.

“Conservators are not supposed to take irreversible action,” Shockey said. “So of course as I finished adhering the scroll, I knocked it over.”

Shockey’s method of adhesion proved successful, however, as he was able to reattach the scroll to the statue and restore it to its original condition.

In addition to his other occupations, Shockey is a scholar in the field of art conservation. He is currently writing about the benefits of CO₂ snow in object conservation.

“Every department has success stories, and Hugh is one of ours,” McCarthy said.