Preserving Icons: An Interview with an Icon Expert

Preserving Icons: An Interview with an Icon Expert

Oleg Kushnirskiy’s collection of Russian icons is stored at a museum-level facility in New York City, collaboratively run by Fine Art Shippers and Arcis. The storage is climate-controlled and protected against bacterial growth and mineral dust accumulation, which are essential conditions for the preservation of artworks, especially icons.

We often receive questions and requests for consultations on methods and technologies related to icon conservation. To answer some of the most common questions, we interviewed Anastasia Likhenko, a specialist in Russian icon painting and museum registrar.

First off, can you explain the complexity involved in preserving ancient icons?

Anastasia Likhenko: Icons are complex objects, comprising various materials, each with its own aging process. These materials—primarily wood, adhesives, and paint—interact with each other and the environment, leading to inevitable changes in the icon. The goal in preservation is to mitigate these effects by maintaining optimal conditions, specifically a relative humidity of 50-55% and temperatures between 19-22°C. Вaily humidity fluctuations must not exceed 2% and occur gradually. When humidity levels change smoothly, wood absorbs or releases moisture slowly, which prevents damage such as tears or breaks in its fibers. Conversely, abrupt changes in conditions, even if they occur within the acceptable range but happen frequently, say every hour, are harmful to the artworks.

Preserving Icons: An Interview with an Icon Expert

Fine Art Shippers Art Storage Facility

How do you monitor and prevent damage to icons?

Preventive conservation is key. Icons are regularly inspected under the microscope to monitor their condition over time. Another way is placing “beacons”—strips of cigarette paper attached with weak fish glue—across cracks. These beacons help us monitor any movement or widening of the cracks over time. This early detection system allows us to address issues before they become more significant problems. Additionally, the condition of the paint layer is constantly assessed to determine the appropriate conservation actions needed to maintain the icon’s integrity.

What principles guide the conservation and restoration efforts of icons?

The cornerstone of our work is minimal intervention. When it comes to the restoration and conservation of icons, we apply the same principle as doctors, which is “do no harm.” It’s crucial to evaluate the potential impact of introducing new materials such as glue, paint, or varnish to an icon’s existing structure. Often, less is more, and all interventions must be carefully considered to avoid unintended consequences, which may not manifest themselves straight away and may be delayed in time.

What challenges arise when transporting icons for exhibitions or loans?

Transportation poses a significant risk due to vibrations and movements that can damage the icon. We meticulously assess each icon’s condition to ensure it can withstand the journey. If we judge that it can be transported, a set of safeguarding measures is implemented. To protect icons during shipment, each artwork is secured in custom-built crates with climate control during transport, monitored in real-time, and handled exclusively by trained professionals.