The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Inside the Guggenheim: How a Work of Art Is Kept Alive

28 of May of 2021

The Guggenheim is so much more than a museum. It is the most emblematic building in Biscay and the flagship of Bilbao. Its very structure is a work of art that, in turn, contains a treasure trove of works that are of tremendous value.

The biggest challenge we come across during maintenance on the Guggenheim is the excellence those facilities require. Every part of the museum – from the galleries to the atrium and even the bathrooms or outdoor ponds – is essential in making a good impression on visitors. Ensuring proper maintenance is a challenge that involves many professionals, digitized systems, and above all, significant organization work for everything to work like clockwork.

Starting from the inside: the museum’s pieces

The three biggest enemies of a work of art are water, fire, and extreme temperature or humidity conditions. This is why one of the museum’s most critical elements is air conditioning. In this sense, the Guggenheim not only strives to keep its visitors comfortable but also to keep the pieces in very stable conditions.

All of this is done by monitoring information from thousands of sensors distributed throughout the building in real-time. If we go outside the stipulated parameters at any time, alarms start to go off, and we have to act quickly to correct the situation.

Generally speaking, optimal conditions are between 20 and 22º C and 48% to 52% relative humidity. However, the level of precision varies depending on the works. Conditions for modern art sculptures are not as critical as rooms with canvases. A Van Gogh painting, for example, requires more exacting temperature control than a piece of forged steel by Richard Serra or an audiovisual projection by Bill Viola.

Another critical element is fire protection, which is based on a unique system: since there can’t be any water systems in the galleries, we use dry pipes. In case of fire, the sensors activate one signal to fill these pipes with water and then a second signal to spray the galleries. This ensures that we avoid potential leaks and that a single signal won’t erroneously trigger the sprinklers. This is such an important feature that we have one person dedicated exclusively to checking and maintaining it.

In addition, all of our maintenance and cleaning operators have specific training for working in galleries where works of art are shown. Protocols include not entering the rooms with buckets of water, not getting closer than a yard away from the pieces, and not carrying out any tasks that may pose even a minimal risk to the works of art, no matter how small. Before carrying out any task, its compatibility with established protocols should be analyzed and studied. These are fundamental principles for conserving heritage assets and those of cultural interest; they’re also followed at many other major museums worldwide.

Sensorization, smartphones, and a great wiring system

Currently, maintenance for the Guggenheim museum is digitized. Each gallery has temperature and humidity sensors and smoke detectors, among others. The building’s arteries hold something hidden from visitors’ eyes yet essential to ensuring that all of this works: a network of more than 500 kilometers of electrical and data transmission cables, as well as an extensive network of pipes that pumps different fluids, like hot and cold water, steam, or compressed air. Without this system, maintaining perfect conditions in each room would be impossible.

One of our main objectives is to conduct efficient facilities at all times, optimizing the building’s energy consumption and therefore contributing to lowering emissions.

We have also implemented a digital system for managing maintenance that lets our operators use smartphones to carry out their daily tasks, making traditional methods a thing of the past. This way, each task or parameter checked in preventive, corrective, or conductive maintenance reviews is digitally recorded, which helps analyze problems and in decision-making.

The human maintenance team also comes into play: it is made up of 27 professionals covering different specialties, including electricity, carpentry, metalwork, plumbing, painting, lighting, and more. Every one of them has helped keep the facility in perfect condition over its 25 years. The cleaning crew consists of 19 people. Part of this cleaning team is continually on rounds around the building, ensuring that the museum is always pristine – even when it welcomes more than 7000 or 8000 visitors in one day.

The stars outside

Both inside and outside, maintenance and cleaning tasks are divided into those that can be carried out at less than 15 yards high (lifting machines are used for this) and those done at greater heights. These are carried out by operators who get the most attention from museum visitors: the vertical technicians, better known as the Guggenheim climbers.

This team is made up of four professionals who hang from the highest parts of the museum to clean and carry out maintenance tasks in hard-to-reach areas. This is a huge challenge, given that the building has façade overhangs that aren’t vertical. They are responsible for tasks as important as monitoring and cleaning the sumps, which must always be clean to prevent water stagnation and any leaks. They also work to keep the curtain walls, titanium pieces, and other elements clean and check them for breaks.

Outside, it is especially important to clean the stone of the façade; this is limestone, so it’s highly porous. Pollution and water can blacken it, yet the Guggenheim remains light and clean even 25 years after it was built. This is made possible by our thorough annual cleaning plan, using pressurized water and special products for this type of facing. Otherwise, the stone would turn dark and lose its appeal, as seen with similar facades.

Puppy’s 37,000 flowers

This list of the museum’s maintenance tasks comes to a close with the site’s pet: Puppy. Throughout the year, its flowers are kept in the best possible shape with fertilizer and phytosanitary treatments. It has a network of internal pipes for automatic irrigation, with about 120 outflows.

Its flowers are also changed every six months. Spring brings summer plants like marigolds, begonias, and garden balsams, while autumn features others that can survive the cold winter months well, mainly pansies. In all, we changed out Puppy’s 37,000 plants in less than a week. To do it as quickly as possible, we get help from about 30 gardeners.

As a whole, maintenance for the Guggenheim Museum is a real challenge. Each of the parts is critical to ensuring that visitors have a great experience, that the building itself continues to be one of the most iconic enclaves of Bilbao, and that the museum stays in the lead in Spain and Europe.

More on the Ferrovial blog | How do you build a Guggenheim museum?

The climbers working at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

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