REFLECTIONS FROM THE VAULT: An irregular series by SFU Galleries' collections manager

Caring for the collection during the pandemic by Christina Hedlund


I started writing this during summer 2020, but, as I got busier planning and installing works of art at the Burnaby campus, I put it aside. Some of the information I had previously written has changed. The number of Covid-19 cases in British Columbia has increased rapidly in recent weeks and SFU has raised the rating of their impact scale to the highest level in accordance with the provincial health authorities’ recommendations.

The global health crisis has cast a particular light on the concerns of my professional practice. When your job is to care for physical objects and those objects are locked behind doors due to a pandemic, what do you do? How does one care for the Art Collection at SFU while also ensuring one's own safety? How has my approach changed? Keeping this in mind, what does it mean to care?

Elza Mayhew, Guardian II, 1963, bronze. Gift of the Rothmans of Pall Mall Canada Ltd., 1967. Photo: Christina Hedland.

I began working from home on March 19, 2020, but twice a week I make the trek up the mountain to check on the gallery and storage vault. To care for artworks is to ensure they are safe: that environmental conditions are steady, that there is no pest activity or human-caused damage and no sign of water leaks. On my weekly visits I make sure that the gallery and vault are secure and that the temperature and relative humidity (RH) is stable and within the optimal range (RH: 50% with short term fluctuations of ±5% and temperature: 18°C to 22°C with short term fluctuations of ±2°C). Outside weather conditions still have some effect on internal conditions in the vault, even though we have an HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) system in place.

While following the advice of BC’s health authorities I am aware of the care I need to take to keep myself and others safe and secure too. I wear a mask when meeting with other staff and contract workers, and I let people know where I will be when I am working on campus.

Jacques Huet, Arc De Triomphe, 1967, aluminum. Gift of Jacqueline Brien, 1999. Photo: Christina Hedland.

Since the works of art on campus are relatively safe and I am no longer asked to move them as frequently, I can turn my focus to the backlog of items that I otherwise never seem to have time for: updating the collections database, working on inventory backlog, compiling the demographics of the collection, revising policies and procedures, and following up with projects that were put on hold.

Why continue installing sculptures in public spaces on campus emptied of people? Does it matter? I think it does. Even though the majority of students have continued their studies remotely this fall and will continue to do so into the spring, there is still activity. Research studies have continued, IT (Information Technology) staff are there ensuring everyone working and learning from home have uninterrupted access to the SFU servers, and multiple construction projects have also continued to move forward.

Michael Dennis, Reclining Woman, 1992, red cedar. Gift of Russell Precious, 1995. Photo: Christina Hedland.

Staff, faculty, construction workers, and people who live on Burnaby Mountain can still be found on campus, and they are spending far more time outside in the open plazas. They are — whether consciously or not— audiences to the numerous works of the SFU Art Collection that are in public spaces. At the same time, the university is quieter than normal, which offered an excellent opportunity to fabricate two new concrete plinths and reinstall two sculptures in a main thoroughfare on the east side of the university grounds: Guardian II (1963) by Elza Mayhew and Arc De Triomphe (1967) by Jacques Huet. Installing these two sculptures in the newly designed east AQ plaza anticipates a fulsome return of students, staff, faculty, and visitors to the Burnaby campus. 

Two other public works of art, which had been moved to temporary off-site storage due to construction, were returned to their home locations on campus. Reclining Woman (1992) by Michael Dennis, removed in 2018, was finally returned to its platform lounge at the beginning of July.

Alan Wood’s Forest Pagoda #3, 1990, oil and mixed media on canvas and wood. Gift of Steven Bronfman, 2003. Photo: Christina Hedland.

Alan Wood’s Forest Pagoda #3 (1990) was moved off-site in 2019 and returned to its high location in the main reception area of Strand Hall, where the President, VP and administrative offices are located. Forest Pagoda #3 was re-installed in October and it took five professional art handlers to slowly hoist the large painted wooden component into place.

Needless to say, despite the seemingly quieter condition, there is always something to do!