Monday, September 24, 2007

Collections Management Exposed

by Brenda Roger

Anyone who has ever been to a museum may wonder how museums keep track of all of that “stuff.” If you haven’t been to a museum, stop reading this right now and go –hurry! The process of managing a museum collection is actually quite intricate, and you must really love objects in order to embrace the process enthusiastically.

Ideally, all of the information about every object in a collection will be kept in “collection files.” The art museum where I work has an ideal set of collection files. An energetic and thorough young woman reorganized the collection files recently, and each time I open a large, fire-proof drawer to find a file, I am impressed all over again. The legal sized folders are neatly hand labeled with the accession number and the title of the object. There is even a specific order to the types of information contained in the folders. Reading the file on a painting is like reading a novel, if you are an art geek like me, anyway.

Every object in a museum collection has an accession number. The accession number indicates the year of acquisition and the order of acquisition for that year. In other words, if you were to give a painting to our museum today, the number could be 2007.8, indicating that it is the eighth thing acquired in the year 2007. Most museums have to think carefully about accepting new things into the collection because storage space, care, and conservation are all expensive concerns.

You only see part of a museum’s collection on display when you visit. Most museums have many more objects in vaults and in off-site storage facilities. There are volumes and volumes of manuals on storage of objects. Temperature and humidity must be strictly controlled depending on the specific materials. The objects must be hung or shelved in a way that does not cause damage or stress.

Now you are thinking that you wouldn’t like to be the person who has to move those valuable things around. Well, thank heavens there are people specifically trained to do just that. Art handlers, or art fondlers as some like to call themselves, are the brave and careful souls charged with that task. Even though they are professionals, I still hold my breath when they move very large paintings or extremely delicate porcelains.

One of the joys of working with art collections and exhibitions is the execution of a condition report. How can a report of any kind be a joy, you ask? When you fill out a condition report, which is done on loan objects when they are incoming and outgoing, you get to look at the painting up REALLY close under bright light. Paintings and prints are never, ever displayed under such bright light, so it is truly a treat. The courier who accompanied the last temporary exhibition at my museum, stood on a ladder with a tiny little flash light and examined every inch of the surface of each large painting. What a task! It was fascinating to watch.

The added bonus of all of this behind-the-scenes action that I witness is that I am forever thinking of new places on the site to hide a body –in a story, of course.

If you have any behind-the-scenes museum questions, please ask.


Tory said...

Why aren't "collection files" computerized? I mean, we are in the information age, aren't we?

brenda said...

Oh, I should have said that. We also have a data base called Vernon that can be queried in a variety of ways. For example, you can search "JP Morgan" in the provenance field to find everything in the collection that was once owned by JP Morgan. The paper files contain all of the documents associated with the oject. Bills of sale, letters to and from Helen Frick, journal articles, etc.

Excellent question, Tory!

ramona said...

Brenda, when I was in grad school, I worked in a fine arts museum, answering the phone and doing membership and whatever else you have to do when you have a staff of six. Our museum had acquired a mummy, and we were in the process of building a spiffy new Egyptian Gallery. During the renovation, the mummy (nicknamed "Joan") was kept in the storage room, in "open air"--meaning, she was lying out on a table. Anytime I'd go down there, I'd toss off a "Hi, Joan" just in case she was getting pissed at such casual treatment. She has proper digs now, I'm happy to report.

My other museum story is about the time we had a gala for the new university president, and Mikhail Baryshnikov performed. He came to the museum, sat in my chair and used my telephone. He also smiled at me. I still get a thrill about that.

Joyce said...

Brenda, shouldn't you be writing an art mystery???

brenda said...


Great stories. I haven't had any brushes with the famous during my museum career. How fun!

In one of my stories, which is only and outline so far, a body is found in a particular spot in Clayton. The whole art mystery thing has been cheapened by DaVinci Code, so mine will focus more on the museum as a great place to hide a body and to obtain an antique, unregistered weapon!