Ghost lives on: The treatment of Rachel Whiteread’s monumental plaster sculpture

Judy L. Ozone, Shelley G. Sturman, Andrew Watt


The conservation treatment of Rachel Whiteread’s monumental plaster sculpture, Ghost, was shaped by many challenging factors: physical size of the object, unstable material properties and construction, available technology, costs, institutional constraints, tempered expectations, ethical boundaries, and artist’s considerations. Ghost is an assembled, four-sided structure comprised of 86 plaster panels attached to a steel armature. The iconic sculpture is a negative cast of an entire room in a Victorian townhouse in London, and is Whiteread’s best-known work. To prepare for a retrospective exhibition in fall 2018, a trial installation and examination was scheduled for early 2016. In the course of unpacking, one of the keystone plaster panels was found to have cracks such that it could not be installed without jeopardizing the entire structure. Because the damaged panel was on the bottom course that supports all of the panels above, the panel needed to be strengthened and all other elements needed to be re-examined to assess their integrity. Almost half of the 86 panels were found to have cracks.

The primary purpose of the treatment was to ensure that the sculpture be made stable so that the work could be safely exhibited. This was accomplished by improving several distinct but interdependent conditions: the physical stability of each plaster panel, the attachment strength between the fastener and the back of each plaster panel, the security of the panels to the armature, and the overall stability of the supporting armature. The treatment sparked many logistical and aesthetic obstacles due to its structural complexity and monumental scale (approximately 9’ wide, 12’ high, and 10’ deep), and prompted conservators to reach out not only to other departments within the museum but to industrial sources for materials and processes not usually associated with fine art conservation treatment.


2018 | Houston | Volume 25