Meet the custodians and custodians of a museum’s collection

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When people ask me what I do for a living, I’m often met with blank stares when I say I’m a museum curator.

I often follow up with, “You know, when you go to a museum and the guards tell you, ‘Don’t touch? Well, they don’t tell me that.

However, this is an oversimplification of what a registrar does. If you’ve ever visited a museum, you’ve seen the work of the registrars in every gallery. We are often invisible, living in the vaults and interior spaces of a museum. We are the custodians and custodians of all things in a museum’s collection, whether those things number in the thousands or the millions.

It is our duty to always know where each object is and in what condition it is, and to protect the collection so that it lasts for hundreds of years to come.

I often work with curators and conservators to balance our responsibility to share the collection with the public with our need to maintain preservation standards and best practices.

According to the American Association of Registrars and Collection Specialists, “The first registrar in the United States was appointed in 1880 to care for the collections of the National Museum, Smithsonian Institution. In the 1950s, two of America’s leading registrars, Dorothy Dudley at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Irma Bezold Wilkinson at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, brought together other registrars to produce the first guidelines for the field, Museum Recording Methods, 1st Edition.

What do I do?

My job encompasses many tasks. Every day I can catalog an incoming donation to our collection, create a database entry, complete paperwork and item condition reports, relocate items to be stored in our vault, photograph our items, administer our inbound and outbound loan programs, prepare objects for display, work on our object rotation program, and monitor climate data throughout the museum. These are just a few of my morning chores.

To be a registrar, you have to like three things: organization, paperwork, and color-coded calendars.

You also have to see the world a little differently. Most people think of time as it relates to their own lives. I have to think about making sure that the objects I’m dealing with are still around in 500, 1,000 years or more.

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I also have to understand my environment differently. Most people, I find, are aware of peripheral forward vision. I have to be aware of my surroundings in front, behind and to the sides, so that I don’t accidentally come back into a painting. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to back off and damage our Norman Rockwell!” is not a statement I want to make.

Like most people who work in the museum field, I have often been called upon to do more than just register. As an exhibition coordinator, I act as the project manager for our exhibitions, whether we host them or develop them in-house. I like this type of work because it combines organization and technical detail, but requires a high degree of creativity. In addition to working on timelines and budgets, I have to design, build and install exhibits.

I work to long deadlines and I know exactly what I will be doing that day next year and the year after.

So how did I become a registrar?

My family started it.

I grew up with stories over generations of my loved ones, and we had many of their items. My mother taught me that it’s the people and the stories behind an object that make it so interesting.

Sometimes she just liked the story of an object. She was a woman who had a full size howitzer and cart in our living room when I was growing up.

In middle school, I had a teacher who was somewhere between Elmer Fudd and Vizzini from “Princess Bride.” He taught archeology and history. I don’t like heat or insects, so I trained as an underwater archaeologist. Asthma cut it short, so I went into museums.

Throughout my career, I have been able to see and manage incredible things. I’ve worked on the wreckage of Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge, handled an original copy of our Constitution, sat in the Enola Gay, and handled George Washington’s dentures (no, they’re not wooden …).

My favorites, however, are the little keepsakes people have kept – a miniature portrait of a loved one, an 1840s daguerreotype image of children a mother would have had, paintings that captured life long before that the photographs are not invented.

Sarah Wolfe is Collections Registrar and Exhibitions Coordinator at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission and parking are free. Visit wcmfa.org or the museum’s pages on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.

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