The Fountain of the Muses is a spectacular installation with 15 life-size bronze sculptures installed in a reflecting pool and fountain. It is one of the most visited pieces of art at the Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet SC. Over the years, however, it had taken a beating from UV, salt spray and wind borne sand. As a result the management of Brookgreen decided to drain the pool this past fall in order to give each sculpture in the assemblage a careful inspection. At that point it was clear that immediate attention was called for.
History of the installation
The Muses were ancient Greek deities who inspired the highest artistic ambitions of mankind. This famous series of sculptures was created by Carl Milles in the early 1950’s. For a number of years it served as the decorative center piece of a 2nd floor restaurant in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Milles described the inspiration for the work as follows:
“Five of the eight figures in the pool have just been drinking the water from a legendary well that inspires artists to work and create. We see them rushing home filled with new ideas. These concepts are represented by the objects they carry.
The Poet: a blue bird. The Architect: a newly formed column. The Musician: a curious instrument. The Painter: Flowers. And the Sculptor: still reaching for his gift from the Gods.”
In 1984 it was decided the fountain could no longer stay at the Met. The 300,000 lb. assemblage presented safety issues that couldn’t be solved. It was then sent south and given new life at Brookgreen Gardens. This 9,000-acre preserve of formal gardens, meadows, wetlands and wildlife preserves features exclusively representational sculpture and exhibits 1444 major works by the most celebrated American artists. Naturally, they are dedicated to the preservation of the sculpture collection. Which can be quite a challenge with the ultra-violet assault from the bright outdoor sun, and the constant salt spray and wind-borne sand from the nearby Atlantic Ocean.
Once these forces begin to corrode the bronze surfaces of a sculpture, protective action must be taken while full restoration was still possible. Ted Monnich, a specialist in bronze restoration and preservation was called in to develop a plan with Robin Salmon, Brookgreen Garden’s curator. The three-day process they decided on started with washing down all the exposed bronze surfaces with a mild detergent mixed with a kaylating agent. Next workers went over every square inch of each sculpture with reticulated foam pads and acetone to remove any remaining corrosion residue.
The artwork was now returned to a condition that was close to its appearance when Milles finished it 60 years ago. The key challenge now was to maintain this appearance as long as possible. Protecting The Fountain of the Muses sculptures required a coating that would not alter the appearance of the original bronze appearance in any way. At the same time, they needed to block UV, salt spray, and wind-borne sand from reaching the metal surface where abrading or corrosion could occur.