Casework Fit for a Museum

A New Jersey company fills a unique market niche, specializing in display cases for museums across the country.

By Ann Gurley Rogers

Dust, humidity, harmful light, security and off-gassing of wood - those are just a few of the many issues that Ken Asmar must take into consideration when he builds casework for his typical customer. That's because his clientele includes museum exhibition designers, conservators and curators, who have demanding specifications when it comes to the cases built to display their precious art and artifacts.

"Vital Forms" was a traveling show that had several venues across the United States and overseas. MSP did all the platforms; some are up to 28 feet long. Since they have to travel with the exhibit, they have to be easy to break down and move. They were all built, sprayed and finished in the shop.

Asmar learned how to meet those demands while working on the staff of the Brooklyn Museum as its resident custom cabinet maker from 1984 to 1993. In 1993, he left the museum to establish an independent custom cabinet and millwork shop called Asmar Custom Interiors Inc. Over the years, he continued to do work for the Brooklyn Museum on a contract basis while also developing a client base for custom kitchens, home offices and entertainment centers. However, the museum business continued to be a strong part of the company's work. So in 2003, Asmar decided to expand his business by opening a new division dedicated to that niche, and Museum Services and Products Inc. was born.

The Brooklyn Museum has continued to be the main client for MSP. In the last year alone, the company constructed displays for a print collection and casework for an art reference library that will be available by appointment only. The Brooklyn Museum also ordered cases for a new security wing that will house close-circuit TVs.

Since the opening of MSP, the company has gotten private clients as well, including a corporate art collector in California. The negotiations for this job were unusual and interesting. Asmar never met the client. All communications were handled through his representative, who knew Asmar from other museum projects he had worked on.

"He brought the project to us because he was handling the purchase of art from a New York auction house, either Christie's or Southeby's, Asmar says. "The cases were made from a maple veneer plywood with the request that all materials be sprayed with two coats of polyurethane. The maple was left with a clear finish on it. When the order was complete, a truck came to pick up the cabinets and delivered them to California."

Museum Services and Products is currently finishing an elaborate project for a private collector who needs cases to display a pottery collection in his home. In addition, Asmar was asked to handle major design work in the room designated for the collection. So MSP also is serving as general contractor and project manager. The company hired all trades involved, including painters, wallpaper hangers and electricians, and its staff even has direct responsibility for protecting the floors in the room and valuable art in adjacent rooms from dust.

MSP's work for the "Egypt Reborn: Art for Eternity" display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art included all freestanding casework, large architectural case interiors and all gallery construction. MSP worked with a decorative concrete fabricator to build the open pedestals shown in this gallery. MSP made the glued-up Medex tops to sit on top of each concrete case. The concrete cases are hollow, with 3-inch walls. The artwork is anchored to the Medex piece.

The design calls for lattice work on the ceiling to serve as a wire chase because the building is concrete and cannot be drilled with holes. "The design challenge was to build the lattice for the wiring to go through. We only had to leave a 5?8-inch chase for the wiring. But to attach this system of sticks to the concrete and build the moulding around it was very complex," Asmar says.

All of the wood is mahogany and mahogany crotch veneers. Mouldings were milled to the architect's design. Raised panels with crotch veneers added to the panel are used as wainscoting around the room. The shelves to display the pottery are an open system that wraps around the top of the room. There are three areas that have a second shelf hanging down from the top shelf. MSP also constructed built-in radiator cases to match the panels, as well as a side board for the dining room.

Projects bring unique challenges

Asmar and his staff of nine woodworkers have the expertise to serve the unusual needs of their customers on several levels. They even go so far as going into a museum and securing the art so that it is safe from construction or a roof leak, which often means putting up temporary partitions or covering the cases properly.

Having collaborated for so many years with the staff at the Brooklyn Museum, Asmar has their trust when it comes to handling the art and constructing cases that will protect it. "When new museum clients talk to me and explain their display needs, I am in a position to say to them with confidence, 'Yes, I can do that,'" Asmar says.

The requirements for display cases can vary widely, depending on the item being showcased. For instance, display cases for textiles and certain metals need have to have proper gasketing to protect the art from air, dust and humidity levels. Some cases require chambers for silica gels to control humidity within the case. And some cases need to have venting for heat from lighting, but still have the chamber for the art sealed.

Security is also an issue. The cases are engineered so that there is no access to the art. Access is restricted to the base, where humidity controls and security equipment are housed. MSP constructed a case with its own micro-climate for a Toledo Museum display to protect an ancient mummy. The trick is to build a piece so that, to the casual eye, the case is unobtrusive, letting the art catch the viewer's attention. This business is truly an example of the old saying, "Less is more."

For museum casework, Medex is often the specified substrate. It is a formaldehyde-free MDF board product that does not off-gas like many plywoods. Off-gassing of materials is a concern when objects are completely sealed in glass or Plexiglas cases.

The finishing materials also are important. Asmar uses polyurethane or latex paint rather than lacquer. During the design process, he provides a sample of the materials to the art conservator so he can run tests to ensure they will not harm the art being displayed.

Not all of MSP's museum jobs are so specialized, however. The company also has been contracted to construct the cabinets for several museum shops, which is more typical fixture work.

Asmar also reports that it is becoming popular for museums to curate shows and then put them on the road, sometimes for several years. This calls for yet another type of casework and fixtures.

"It is popular for the traveling exhibition to be arranged so that visitors exit through a temporary gift shop, just like Disney does [with some of its theme park rides]," Asmar says.

For the Coffin of Ta-Mit at the Toledo Museum of Art, MSP provided a specially designed micro-climate case, providing independent control over the passive climate control system to provide a constant and uniform environment for the ancient work of art. The case features a discreet panel that allows museum staff access to the coffin. The schematic drawing shows the passive climate control system featured in the casework.

He did work for one traveling exhibition that the Brooklyn Museum participated in, which called for free-form platforms. Sizes ranged from 4-feet by 4-feet to 8-feet by 30-feet and included some kidney-shaped platforms. This show was destined to go to six venues, starting at the Brooklyn Museum and then continuing on to Europe.

Another such client is the Parrish Museum, an important regional art museum in Southampton, NY, which contracted the services of MSP for casework for a traveling exhibition.

"One thing about these jobs is that the museums are on a very tight schedule," Asmar says. "For example, for the Parrish Museum project, one show came down, and we only had a week to install our cases [for the next show]. The museum's staff was working around the clock to install the exhibition itself."

Another challenge is that museums usually schedule exhibitions at least two if not three to four years in advance. "The client has to understand that our price quotes are based on costs today, and everybody will be factoring in price increases," Asmar says. Even when the bid was researched for the private pottery collection casework, Asmar's mahogany supplier cautioned him by saying, "Ken, you realize that this is the price for mahogany today and no telling what it will be in three to four months."

Still, the work is steady and always interesting. One future project that MSP is currently bidding is for cases for an airline museum in Chicago. Another upcoming project, for the Brooklyn Museum, is to move and store art in one exhibition area to make room for a permanent exhibition in a new wing devoted to feminism. It will house Judy Chicago's installation called, "The Dinner Party," - another in a long list of unique projects for MSP's portfolio.

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