Monday, 23 June 2014

STORAGE WARS - MUSEUM EDITION

INTERNSHIP CHECK-IN

BY: BRITTNEY SPROULE

Another happy Monday to all! This week I shall dazzle you with a wee glimpse into my collections management internship at the University of Toronto Art Centre (UTAC). If you aren't familiar with UTAC, check out their website here and go for a visit! There's definitely something there for everyone. UTAC is also responsible for caring for most of the art you see all over campus, from portraits to outdoor sculpture, in case you have ever wondered (as I have), "where does all this stuff come from?"

University of Toronto Art Centre, in University College (St. George Campus)

Today, however, I will be chatting to you about a part of UTAC rarely seen by the public: its storage vault. My primary internship project at UTAC is to plan the reorganization and upgrade of the facility's fine art storage vault, which houses about 4000 of UTAC's roughly 6000 collection objects at any given time. As much as I'd love to give you guys a fabulous inside photo tour of our vault, I am super not allowed to do that for confidentiality reasons (imagine that). SO, I shall paint some beautiful word pictures for you, and also share some of the collections management experiences challenges I have faced in my internship!

UTAC's actual vault reorganization/upgrade process is not scheduled to happen until next summer, so my job this summer is to work out the logistics of the project - research best practice for storing a diverse collection, getting in touch with different storage companies and determining what solutions they can offer, taking inventory and measurements of what is in the vault now and what will be in the future, meeting with other collections professionals to pick their brains, and of course, budget and potential grants to fund the project. Among other things!

The dream...
(Museum of Fine Arts Boston, storage provided by Montel)

I must say though, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my internship so far has been the opportunity to visit other museums and galleries around Toronto and the GTA who have recently upgraded/reorganized their storage spaces. My collections manager and I embarked on these trips not only to drool over new storage facilities and equipment in situ, but to gain feedback from the collections professionals in charge of the storage and preservation of these institutions' collections, to talk about how their new storage solutions are working for them (and, perhaps most important, what they'd do differently).

It's no shocker that museum-grade storage equipment, supplies, and environmental controls don't come cheap and museum budgets, especially for collections and conservation, are always limited. However, it has been truly fascinating to see some of the ingenious solutions collections staff members have come up with themselves to properly store their collections with limited resources. I've seen everything from brilliant homemade mounts that allow for extremely heavy Inuit stone sculpture to slide off their shelves with minimal handling and much ease, to the re-purposing of old office supply equipment into functional print storage and artifact storage. It may not sound like much, but these types of solutions can save institutions thousands of dollars and can really go a long way in contributing to the proper care of collections.

Although this collection doesn't really pertain to my internship,
the Bata Shoe Museum's artifact storage rooms always fill me with awe...
So organized.
The most challenging aspect of my internship has so far been the inventory part. Not only have I had to familiarize myself with what actually exists in UTAC's three separate collections, but I have spent much time scouring our database (which thankfully, is TMS and fairly user friendly) to determine the location, medium, and dimension of every object in the vault (which ranges from roman glass to paintings, from furniture to stone sculpture). This is all so that I can determine where everything is going to move and the necessary dimensions of the new storage area and equipment. Needless to say, this has been ever so slightly time consuming.

Oversize mechanical assist compact artifact shelving. Yes please.

However, this task has opened my eyes to how crucial it is to a) have an accessible database, preferably an online one and b) one with information that is up to date. Many of us have heard and experienced that often in museums and galleries, staff is limited and collections are so large - with new items constantly coming in - that it is near impossible to keep database information and the movement of every object consistently recorded. This is just the reality many collections staff members have to face, typically to no fault of any other staff members, who likely have countless other projects that require attention too. So, I have learned, it's all about patience, consulting your fellow staff members for input (especially those who have been at the institution for a long time), and taking large projects one step at a time, one task at a time, one day at a time! Plus, taking breaks to shop online for shiny new high density mechanical shelving units and smooth sliding ceiling mounted art racks definitely helps keep things interesting.

And, as always, your comments/queries/feedback/related experiences is/are all welcome!

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