Sunlight is damaging Oklahoma Capitol's paintings, experts say

The sunlight is coming in through windows in the Oklahoma Capitol's dome erected 10 years ago and causing irreversible damage.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Published: July 2, 2012
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Not only is the state Capitol crumbling, but light coming in through windows in the dome erected 10 years ago is having an adverse effect on portraits and murals on and above the fourth- floor rotunda.

The difference in skin tone between the face and hands in the portrait of former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Robert S. Kerr is significant, and a painting of Alice Robertson, the first Oklahoma woman and only the second woman in the United States elected to Congress, receives 61 times the acceptable level of sunlight during certain days, a report prepared for the Oklahoma Arts Council states.

“We love the dome,” said Kim Baker, executive director of the Oklahoma Arts Council. “We think it's the crowning glory of the Capitol. However, when you're looking at irreplaceable artwork that belongs to the people of Oklahoma, this is something that needs to be taken care of so that future generations will be able to enjoy it. It's part of our history and part of our culture.”

The dome was added to the Capitol building in 2002. Before the dome, no sunlight entered the rotunda, where murals and framed paintings on canvas are installed around the base of the dome and in locations along the corridors beneath the dome.

The portraits of Kerr, Will Rogers, Sequoyah and Jim Thorpe are on the fourth-floor rotunda; they were painted by Charles Banks Wilson in the 1960s.

The dome contains windows that allow light to directly fall on the surface of several works of art. Sunlight reflected on the marble floor also is reaching paintings hung in corridors.

“What usually happens depending on the time of the year and the time of the day, light will come in a solid beam like one strip,” Baker said. “And that really intense strip just moves across. You hate it. You almost want to put something over the pieces until the light's gone past it.”

Eventually the light will destroy the artwork, she said.

“With lighting it's irreversible,” Baker said.

Scrims recommended

A report by Blackthorne Associates, which looks at ways to conserve and preserve artwork, recommends installing a screen material commonly referred as a scrims that would reduce the light levels on the artwork.

“This would provide a measure of protection that would prolong the life of these objects and minimize the damage due to light exposure,” the report states.

Scrims can be adjustable, attached to sensors and can be placed on rollers that would allow full light from done to enter the rotunda on special occasions, according to the report. It may be necessary to use a “blackout” scrim on certain windows to prevent the extreme bands of light from striking the surface of paintings. A scrim also may be placed on an automated motor that can be raised and lowered as necessary.

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