Conserving Duane Hanson's Woman Eating

For a decade, Duane Hanson's life-like sculpture Woman Eating has fascinated SAAM visitors. With funding provided by the Smithsonian's Women's Committee, conservators were able to research, examine, document, and treat this work for future generations to continue to enjoy.

Duane Hanson created hyperrealistic sculptures based on casts of his family, friends, and models. He painted these fiberglass and polyester resin casts and dressed them with clothing and accessories from secondhand stores. Although Hanson's sculptures elicit humorous double takes from museum visitors, they also offer profound and witty commentaries on lives often overlooked in our society.

Hanson's sculptures pose challenges to long-term display because their various media require diverse approaches to cleaning. Even though light, humidity, and temperature are carefully monitored in the museum, over time, Woman Eating accrued a fine layer of grime, her clothes and hair were covered in dust, and various parts of the work were in need treatment.

Woman Eating

Duane Hanson's Woman Eating

Conservators carefully examined and documented Hanson's artwork in order to understand the best way to clean each part of the piece. For example, Hanson wanted the grocery bag to look used, but the paper became brittle with age, and the original tear widened with the pressure of the bag's contents. While aging cannot be reversed, conservators were able to stabilize the paper to prevent further deterioration and mended part of the tear. The grocery bag is only one component of the work though. Hanson employed a wide range of materials to give Woman Eating its complexity, including fiberglass, artificial and animal leather, napkins, metal, plastic, hair (likely synthetic), salt and pepper shakers with presumed salt and pepper, cotton shoe string, polyester resin, rhinestones, newsprint, paper, twine, fabric, oil paint, cardboard, and glass. Conservators had to perform extensive research on the complex and varied materials of the piece to understand how they aged and the best way to clean the work while protecting it from any chemicals or cleaning techniques that might cause damage.

Conservator Jamie Gleason will present a free lecture about this conservation project on Wednesday, June 29th at 4:00 p.m. in SAAM's MacMillan Education Center.

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