Shuttlecocks are a Smash at Nelson-Atkins Museum

Two decades have passed since the iconic Shuttlecock sculptures first landed on the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, resulting in shouts of “foul” by critics of the project. Weighing nearly 5,000 pounds each and standing more than 17 feet tall, the four white-and-orange badminton birdies stirred public emotion even prior to their installation 20 years ago this month.

“When the sculptures were first proposed there was considerable opposition to putting them out on the lawn,” recalled Paul L. Benson, Conservator of Objects at the museum. “The critics felt they were too frivolous. At that time during the early ‘90s, the property belonged to the city’s Park and Recreation Department, which had a preference for more classical sculptures around the museum.”

Designed by the husband and wife team of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, the sculptures were described as “silly pop art” by the editorial writers of the Kansas City Star newspaper. Similar views were echoed by newspaper readers in their Letters to the Editor.

“One of the jokes going around at that time referenced the fact that there were four birdies, but where’s the racket?” Benson shared. “Someone responded that the racket was commissioning these sculptures.”

Over the years, Benson has watched the sculptures grow in popularity and notoriety. “After we installed the sculptures, people got used to them and now you see them portrayed all over town in advertisements promoting the city,” he observed. “Today, they represent Kansas City as well as the museum.”

Each sculpture is positioned differently on the museum’s lawn. One stands nose down, another is balanced on its feathers, while the other two lay at different angles on the ground. Visitors can sometimes be seen leaning against the birdies while being photographed, and one individual was found sunbathing inside one of the sculptures.

“We have had very few issues with visitor interaction,” Benson reported. “Occasionally, someone on a scavenger hunt will tape a note on one of the sculptures telling people where to go for the next clue, but we haven’t had any vandalism.”

The Shuttlecocks are a favorite backdrop for group photos and selfies taken by visitors to the Nelson-Atkins Museum. “The sculptures are photographed all the time,” Benson acknowledged. “A favorite pose is to stand at a distance from the sculpture so you appear to be holding it in your hand.”

In order to keep the sculptures looking their best, Benson and other museum staff members perform spring cleaning using buckets, brushes and a non-ionic detergent. “It’s a very gentle detergent,” Benson explained. “We mix it up in a bucket and use soft brushes on each sculpture, then rinse it all down with a hose. It gets it nice and clean and doesn’t leave any residues on the surface.”

Originally painted with polyurethane enamel, the fiberglass and aluminum sculptures were recoated between 2001 and 2006 with a fluoropolymer coating system from Tnemec that resists the effects of ultraviolet (UV) light while providing exceptional color and gloss retention.

Each sculpture was carefully disassembled and prepared for recoating by the contractor, Goens Brothers, Inc., of Kansas City, Missouri. Individual pieces were primed with Series 161 Tneme-Fascure, a polyamide epoxy, followed by an intermediate coat of Series 73 Endura-Shield, an aliphatic acrylic polyurethane that resists abrasion, wet conditions and exterior weathering.

Two custom colors were selected for the finish coat of Series 1071 Fluoronar, a high-solids fluoropolymer coating. Shuttlecock White was shop-applied to the feathers that weighed 450 pounds each, and Atkins Pumpkin was used for the orange tips. These colors are readily available from Tnemec whenever touchup work is required and according to Benson, “we always have a very good color match.”

“The sculptures that were painted in 2001 still look great,” Benson added. “Even the bright orange looks exactly as it did when it was painted.”

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