Glowing Murals Get a Facelift

Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) conservators are assisting in the preservation of 1959 "blacklight" murals in the Alameda Theatre in San Antonio, Texas. These paintings, which depict scenes of San Antonio's Mexican heritage, are examples of a dramatic trend in interior theater decoration in the 1940s and early 1950s. They were created with fluorescent paints, resulting in a spectacular glowing three-dimensional appearance under ultra-violet illumination. (The term fluorescent should be differentiated from phosphorescent, liminescent, or glow-in-the-dark, because the murals do not continue to fluoresce in the absence of an ultraviolet light source.)

After a financially unsuccessful conversion to a triple-plex movie theatre in the 1960s, the Alameda Theatre spent decades in disrepair. Museo Americano, a Smithsonian affiliate museum and performing arts center allied with Washington's Kennedy Center, is committed to a careful and educated approach to the complete restoration of the Alameda's historic structure. The conservation program's development involves a collaboration of an historic theater preservation architect, painting conservators, and scientists from MCI.

Alameda Theater
A vibrant cowboy rallies his herd under the "Saga of the Seven Flags" and the Randolph Air Force base tower on the eastern wall of the Alameda Theatre. Jia-Sun Tsang and Sarah Pinchin's study confirms the importance of the black light murals in a brief, but brilliant, artistic trend of the '40s and '50s.

Alameda Theater
A detail of the western wall of the Alameda's black light murals reveals Spanish ships on their way to conquer the Aztec empire as Cortez looks on. The western wall is better preserved than the paintings on the eastern wall, which have suffered from extensive roof leaks.

Featured in Spotlight on Science at the Smithsonian, Special Edition, January, 2004, p. 9. Top Science Stories of 2003. Originally in Spotlight on Science at the Smithsonian, August 4, 2003.