What is the best way to hang an Aboriginal bark painting on a wall?

With the increase in the collecting of Australian Aboriginal paintings on stringybark, Eucalyptus tetradonta, conservators are often asked how to mount and look after bark paintings.

Bark is subject to curling, cracking, splitting and warping when it loses or absorbs water. It is subject to movement when it is placed in environments that are not controlled. This movement can happen over a short or long period of time depending on the rapidity and extent of the environmental change. If a bark painting is constrained or mounted in the wrong way a great deal of damage could occur if movement occurs. In addition, if the paint is not strongly held onto the bark surface, the paint has a tendency to flake off if there is movement.

Bark paintings are difficult to mount because of the nature of stringybark and its relationship to water. The following are a variety of ways barks have been mounted and the problems that can arise from the use of such systems:

  • If a bark is held top and bottom it can develop a typical twist shape.
  • If wood has been adhered in spots to the back of the bark, then hung, in time it can develop a typical central warp.
  • If strips of wood are adhered to the bark, it can develop a typical warp just below the adhesive line that can progress into splitting or pulling away from the bark during natural movement.
  • In the past barks have been nailed, screwed or wired through from the front and held onto a hard board at the back. This is now considered unethical in the same way that any painted surface by an artist should be respected in its entirety. In addition those areas that are unconstrained, can move, split and warp as the environment changes.
  • A bark of a size larger than about 500mm in length, lent unsupported on an angle against a wall, will develop a curve.

The Process

A method has been developed to fully support the bark. It allows the bark to move in a reversible system that does not employ adhesive contact with the bark. A padded, riveted aluminium framework has been designed to conform to the significant contours of a bark painting. It is held in place at the base by appropriately coloured polyethylene coated aluminium feet and the sides clipped to the system with clear, strong polycarbonate clips.

When working through the method it is important to constantly check the system against the bark as small movements during construction can cause frustration in the final alignment if checking has not taken place during manufacture.

Barks are generally painted to be hung in the portrait alignment (Thus hung in the vertical, longitudinal direction of the tree growth.) Coincidentally, the bark when moving, does so most radically in the horizontal, or radial, circular, direction of the tree growth. This is very fortunate as the weight can be supported on the longitudinal plane with a heavier gauge aluminium strip. A thinner gauge aluminium conforming to the contours of the bark can support the flexible movement of the bark.

Barks requiring hanging in the horizontal direction remain a problem for hanging. At this stage they are mounted as describe above to allow for the horizontal movement, but the feet are placed on the lighter weight aluminium gauge. This to date has not caused any problems. Stress may however occur to the bark of it is very large (over 1 square metre).

Conclusion

  • The system is lightweight, cheap to make and with practice quick to construct.
  • The system gives immediate visual access to the back of the bark. Important provenancing information that is often written on the back is immediately available.
  • An advantage lies in the use of the system in environments that are not controlled.

The above information is a shortened version of a paper that was published by Karen Coote in the Journal of the Scottish Society for Conservation and Restoration in 1995. For a detailed account of the method, e-mail the Materials Conservation Division staff.


Colin Macgregor , Manager, Materials Conservation
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