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Conservation Notes: An "attractive" mounting method

The methods we use to display different types of artworks in the Gallery are many. In this post Joan Weir, Conservator of Works on Paper, explains how we use magnets to hang lightweight artworks and provides some special tips and warnings for using this technique at home.

Why magnets?

We sometimes use magnets when it's not desirable to formally or permanently mount artwork or archival items in traditional window mats and frames. You will typically find them used with posters, sketches, archival documents and sometimes photographs — it really depends on how the work is to be presented to the public and if the works are considered to be in stable enough condition. We have reusable metal-surfaced panels that can be installed in a variety of orientations to suit any given exhibition. They are always covered with plexiglass to protect the surfaces from dust and changes in the gallery environment.

Corners of posters installed using magnets in the exhibition Constructing Utopia: Books and Posters from Revolutionary Russia, 1910-1940.
Corners of posters installed using magnets in the exhibition Constructing Utopia: Books and Posters from Revolutionary Russia, 1910-1940.

Will any old magnet do?

The magnets we use are rare-earth magnets, which come in different sizes and strengths to hold objects of varying weights. Even the smallest rare-earth magnets are very strong and so there are guidelines that must be followed when using them to hang original artwork....


The first thing to note is that both sides of the magnets will attract themselves to the metal panels. Removing the magnets can become a huge headache if the polarity is not correct: in one orientation the magnet will repel any magnet brought close to it. If this happens, the magnet has to be pried or slid off, which could damage the artwork’s surface. Therefore, we always align the polarity so that a larger magnet can be used to attract the magnet away from the artwork. We use magnetic door hangers — a knob with a rare-earth magnet that can be used to hang things on metal doors — to facilitate this soft and easy removal of the magnet from the artwork's surface (see photo below). You will also find that new rare-earth magnets have a dot on one side to indicate the side that should face out.

A close up view of a door hanger.
Using a door hanger to remove a magnet.

A layer (or two) of protection

Never put magnets directly on the artwork surface. We either attach small hinges (tabs of Japanese paper) at the edges and put the magnets on those or, if a fake tack appearance on the artwork is desirable, we put a thin invisible Mylar circle underneath the magnet. This prevents any marks or stains from forming on the artwork's surface. We always place a thin Mylar sheet behind the artwork, too, to act as a protective barrier between the art and the metal display surface.

Important tips!

  • Never put magnets over an artworks' medium (pastel or chalk, for example) or slide magnets over the artwork surface.
  • Match the size of your magnet to your artwork — no need to overdo it!
  • Test any soft paper to make sure you don’t get an indentation or impression.
  • When in doubt, consult an expert! If you're hanging one-of-a-kind and/or valuable artworks, always work with a professional.

Curious about Conservation?
If you have a burning question about Conservation, leave a comment below. We'll do our best to give you an answer in an upcoming Conservation Notes post.


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