Curation Museums

Ashlee Hickson, Witte Museum

Internship with the Witte Museum:

I had the opportunity to intern in the Witte Museum’s collection department during the summer of 2017, working under its department manager Leslie Ochoa. This report will discuss my projects, which included the installation of a Jose Arpa art exhibit that involved completing artifact condition reporting paperwork. More importantly, the rehousing of artwork for the Works on Paper Project in the Texas Art Gallery located at the B. Naylor Morton Research and Collections Center. I will also discuss how training in the field of anthropology can better prepare an individual in the processes and steps involved when handling artifacts and preparing for an exhibit.

 

Works on Paper Artifacts:

The Works on Paper Project is an organizational approach to the artwork housed at the Texas Art Gallery. It consisted of three different phases; Phase one consisted of completing the shuffle of various pieces of art by placing them in their assigned drawer. Phase two consisted of reviewing all the drawers and completing inventory sheets while updating the database record, while phase three consisted of going back through all of the drawers and rehousing the art pieces needing matboard and other archival quality materials for proper storage. These three phases each pertain to a separate step that helps the curator more efficiently find all the artwork that is housed.

In order for a curator or museum employee to locate the museums artifacts, they must be accurately placed in the location they were assigned. All the locations and artifacts are found in the computer database system that the Witte uses. This system is referred to as the Re:Discovery system and keeps an accurate inventory list of all the artifacts housed and stored by the Witte. This database ensures that accurate information is always accessible, and it became easier to navigate with more hands-on experience throughout the Works on Paper Project.

In the first phase, I needed to ensure that the artwork located in each drawer was accurately placed in the locations the Re:Discovery database system listed (Figure 1). The museum lingo for housing is also which I successfully helped in doing for this phase (Figure 2). Every piece of art at the Witte contains its own catalog number, and it is how the art work is searched in the database system. I became more familiar with the catalog numbers that are located on each piece of art. The catalog numbers consisted of a sequence of numbers that designate the artwork to a collection based on the year procured by the Witte Museum. For example, one catalog number can be 1991-46 P (32); this catalog number means the year it was received at the Witte was 1991, it was the 46th piece of art received in that year, the P explains that it was purchased by the Witte museum, and 32 in parentheses signifies that it is number 32 in its collection. When given the artwork that needed to be shuffled to its appropriate drawer, I became more familiar with the storage system that the museum uses.

Figure 2: Me standing placing art in drawers

Figure 2: Me standing placing art in drawers

Figure 1: Me sitting with a computer and art

Figure 1: Me sitting with a computer and art

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second phase consisted of going through each drawer located in the Texas Art Gallery and making sure that each piece of art was in its correct location again corresponding with the Re:Discovery database system. By doing this task, I was able to become more knowledgeable with the database system and recognize why it is important the artwork is located where it is. Use of the database system helps in organization, since the Museum is advancing in a more technological direction by allowing information of its artifacts to be accessible in a systematic direction. This makes acquiring information significantly easier for the curator and collections manager. In the Texas Art Gallery at the B. Naylor Research and Collections Center, there are 200 drawers, each containing several pieces of art. This phase became very tedious and extensive considering the amount of Texas Art the Witte has in its collection. While going through each drawer and updating locations in the database system, we also made an inventory sheet for each drawer that listed all the drawer’s contents which made finding pieces even more efficient (Figure 3). The inventory sheets contained information such as the catalog number, author, title, and dimensions of the piece taken from Re:Discovery. While completing the inventory sheets, I would indicate the pieces I could not find on the sheet with a symbol such as a star and document any information I could find on the piece. These certain pieces of art will eventually be examined by the collections manager, Leslie Ochoa, and added manually since she is more knowledgeable on these pieces. I also needed to document on the inventory sheets if the artwork needed storage materials such as a mat or paper so they would be correctly stored and not become damaged over time. For any pieces that needed storage materials, we would make those notes on the inventory sheet, that those needed to be dealt with in Phase three.

Figure 3: Me sitting completing an inventory sheet

Figure 3: Me sitting completing an inventory sheet

I unfortunately only had time to complete the first two phases of the Works on Paper Project during my internship. This project was extremely helpful in not only seeing how the artwork is housed, but also the steps in making a successful storage area for the artwork. I was able to gain a lot of hands-on experience that allowed me to understand the storage processes and learn the Re:Discovery database system.

 

Installing Exhibits:

I was able to help install an exhibit that contained artwork from the Spanish painter Jose Arpa (1858-1952). Jose Arpa created many forms or mediums of art that included charcoal, watercolor and oil, but predominantly did oil paintings throughout his lifetime. The collection consisted of many types of artwork that incorporated people and scenery from Spain, Mexico, Venice, and the local San Antonio and South Texas hill country dating back from the early 1900’s. This traveling exhibit came from various private collectors and other museums that proffered their Jose Arpa artwork. The Witte museum also had a few pieces that were part of the exhibit that was donated in the past to the Witte.

I had to complete condition reports for each piece of art included in the exhibit, consisting of the current condition the pieces were in upon arrival before the installation began. A condition report will establish the exact condition of an object at the time of loan, the type and rate of deterioration, provides past evidence for future problems, sets priorities for conservation treatment, and makes future handlers aware of seen and unseen problems. Getting ready to do a condition report requires certain items and steps. I needed to apply nitrile gloves, have an ultraviolet light, a camera and of course the examination forms.

When processing the pieces of art, we took pictures of the pieces front and back before unwrapping them from their shipping material. When slowly unwrapping the pieces, we kept all of the packing material so we can use it again when we process it for travel after the exhibit is finished. I also took pictures once the art piece was unwrapped and throughout the unwrapping so that we could incorporate all of the pictures taken into the condition report and know how the piece of art needs to be rewrapped once ready for shipment.

Once the pictures were completed we then began the process of examining the piece. We looked first at the previous condition reporting to notice what had been documented on each piece. This will include knicks, physical defects on the frame or the art piece itself and any wear or discoloration in the color of the art. When I looked for defects, I would then document them on the condition report if they were not already mentioned in the previous reports, which is why looking at prior paperwork is so important. If everything was mentioned and nothing had changed then I would then add “no changes” in the comments section along with my initials and date it was completed. This helped document the condition of the piece of art when we received it from the exhibit so that there is a record of its condition at all times, which is very important for traveling exhibits. Condition reports are done before and after an exhibit is over to prepare the pieces for shipment to their next destination.

When hanging the exhibit, we used D-rings located on the back of the artwork. D-rings are a hanging device used on artwork for easier hanging and more security when hanging. By measuring the distance between each set of D-rings, we then place that measurement on the wall where it would be hung. There were more than 20 pieces of art and we hung them according to their general progression in time period and then within those specific time periods we then grouped them by theme and style. The artwork for the exhibit also had labels, each needing to be placed by its properly associated piece of art. I was able to place paper labels until the correct labels were ready to be placed (Figure 4). These labels helped portray the information on each piece detailing the title, artist and information about the origin of the artwork, such as when it was painted. This helped in explaining each piece of art in a more sequential and understandable way to the public.

Figure 4: Picture of a label

Figure 4: Picture of a label

I was only able to be a part of this project for two weeks, but during that time I was able to gain a great deal of knowledge in the processes and steps that are eeded when installing an exhibit. Having a team of people that are willing to work together efficiently helps in the installation of an exhibit as well. During this project, I became much more knowledgeable in how to set up an exhibit which helped me better understand the amount of energy and dedication needed for an exhibit to be installed effectively.

 

Conclusion:

I began my internship at the Witte Museum with only the perception of a curious museum visitor having only the knowledge of what I can see as a guest. Over the course of my internship, I was able to obtain a more in-depth understanding of the inner workings of the museum with little to no previous knowledge. I have always been fascinated and interested in history and the beauty of the past. Through this internship I had the opportunity to experience firsthand what it takes to not only help the public visualize and experience history in an understandable way but also the steps that are involved in the installation of those exhibits and the importance of an organization system for the artifacts contained at a museum.

About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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