Packing an Art Museum’s Collection

As the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art prepares for a $30 million renovation, set to be completed by 2019, we are often asked why the renovation will take a full two years. Part of the answer is the monumental task of packing and moving a major collection of art. To explain the process better, Emma Kessler, the museum’s curatorial assistant for the Arts of African, Oceania, and the Americas gives us an inside look into the process. 

Due to the $30 million renovation of the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University set to begin this summer, we must move our collection of more than 45,000 objects to an off-site facility. While the museum closed its doors to the public on May 15, the packing of the collection, which began last year, will continue. It will take many months to safely move the collection so that the renovation can begin, and many months after the renovation is completed to reinstall the collection.

Example of a crate custom-built to hold a specific art object.

The packing process began its planning phase over a year ago. Given its size, as well as the value, fragility, and diversity of objects, the museum’s collection requires a packing process that is organized and executed in a very precise manner. Packing began with our African, Oceanic, and Americas (AOA) collection and is now underway with our holdings of ancient art, Asian art, works on paper, and European and American paintings and sculptures.

The first step in this process is a complete inventory of the collection. While inventories are done periodically, and a record is kept any time an object is put on display, loaned to another institution, or otherwise moved, surprises still pop up, especially when doing something as comprehensive as moving the entire collection piece by piece. To complete the inventory, every storage unit, shelf, and drawer was checked against both computer and paper records to make sure everything is up-to-date. It is also important to ensure that every object has a photograph accompanying its record in our database, as well as a physical tag recording the object’s accession number. A packing report is made for each object as well. It is displayed on the box or crate made for that item, allowing for easy identification while in storage.

Once the inventory process is complete, each object requires a condition report. With every object in our collection being moved, it is necessary to assess condition before packing, moving, and storage for an extended period of time. While this is a time-consuming process, it has a number of benefits, including aiding in future conservation efforts and drawing attention to any specialized care an object needs when being packed or during storage. For example, in 2014 we acquired a fantastic collection of art from Kenya. Among these objects are a number of skirts and aprons made from animal hide, a material that is quite susceptible to mold. Therefore, these items (and others like them) will need extra monitoring to make sure there are no issues.

After the inventory and conservation examination is complete, an object is ready to be packed. Whenever an item is moved or packed a digital record is created in our database, along with a backup paper record. We discovered that during this process it is extremely important to have someone on site who knows the collection well. As the curatorial assistant for the African, Oceanic, and Americas collection, I have been spending my days in the storage area recording each item and assisting with any additional questions, including those concerning numbering issues, materials, safe packing practices, and various oddities. Some issues may not occur to someone unfamiliar with the collection. For example, certain objects need to be packed together, while others need to be packed alone.

The actual packing of objects may sound very straightforward: you take the object, wrap it in bubble wrap, put it in a box, and move on to the next object, right? However, it is nowhere near that simple. The objects in the museum range in size, shape, material, and fragility, and the objects in the African, Oceanic, and Americas collection are some of the most diverse. They range in size from six-foot masks to 0.2-inch gold weights. There are also a wide variety of materials, including wood, fiber, bone, shell, feathers, hair, metal, and plastic. Often a single object will include several different materials. The size, shape, and materials used as well as any condition issues need to be taken into account when packing the object.

An example of a storage container specifically customized for the object it holds. Notice the supports on the lid, as well as inside the box.

While some items fit into standard size boxes, many require the creation of a specialized box or crate. While they may look like simple large boxes from the outside, they are very intricate on the inside, with close attention paid to every detail. The object must be secured in such a way that there is no chance of it moving around as the crate is transported. As a result, each crate has a number of specially made supports for the particular object it holds. In addition, the materials used for these supports (or anything that touches the object) must be of archival quality and acid-free. Also, the materials used can vary considerably based on the individual qualities of the object that is being packed. Some items in our collection have sticky materials on their outer surfaces—for these objects tissue paper will not work, as it will stick to the object. Instead, a soft archival fabric-like material is used. While this is a lengthy process, it has some added benefits, as we have been able to improve our storage methods in many ways. For example, within our textile storage, new containers and protective coverings were created for all of our leather and hide objects. This is an improvement over how they were initially stored.

Within our encyclopedic collection of more than 45,000 objects there are a myriad of different sizes, materials, and individual needs when packing and storing the collection. While it is a monumental challenge to pack up a collection of this size, it is also an opportunity to reassess our holdings and improve methods of storage and care for our collection. In that way, it is a great moment for ensuring that our collection will be properly preserved and available for Indiana University students, visiting scholars, and the general public for years to come. We look forward to unpacking our collection and reinstalling it in the newly renovated museum to provide a new way for everyone to engage with original works of art.

IU Eskenazi Museum of Art Website

Your Favorite Things: Emma Kessler and a Māori Weaving Peg

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Unknown Maori artist, New Zealand. Weaving Peg. Wood and haliotis shell. Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2010.21

Your Favorite Things is a regular feature on our blog where students, staff, and patrons of the museum talk about their favorite objects in the museum’s collection. Today Emma Kessler, curatorial assistant for the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas discusses her favorite object, a Māori Weaving Pin.

Since I was a kid I’ve always loved museums. I love learning about other cultures through the objects they’ve created.

I first visited the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University on a campus visit while trying to decide where I wanted to attend graduate school. It is safe to say I was impressed with the collection and I was blown away by the objects in the Raymond and Laura Wielgus Gallery of the Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

To be upfront, my graduate focus is on the art of Polynesia, and I happily admit that my opinions are completely biased, but as far as I am concerned the Polynesian collection is the best in the museum.

My favorite object is a beautiful and unfinished Māori Weaving Peg from Aotearoa (New Zealand). I go back to this object over and over again. I never walk past it without stopping at least for a moment, and if I have a visitor with me I always point it out. Among the Māori, weaving was historically a sacred act carried out by women, and there was great care, attention, and power put into the necessary tools.

emma-portrait
Emma Kessler

I love the history and unique qualities of this object. While it is certainly not the only example of a carved weaving peg, it is one of the most elaborate. The crispness of the carving is the result of metal tools that had only been introduced relatively recently when the weaving peg was created in the 18th century. Its use of interlocking figures, a characteristic of Māori carving, means there is always something new to see and more to look at. I never get bored when spending time with this object.

However, my favorite thing about this weaving peg is the fact that it is unfinished. In a purely visual way, this allows one to see and get a better understanding of how the peg was made. The figures at the bottom have been roughly outlined but are nowhere near the completed intricacy of the figures above them. Through a cultural lens this unfinished quality becomes even more interesting. Every part of the carving process included chants and prayers, imbuing the object with mana, or sacred power, and creating an intense connection between the object and the carver. When the peg’s carver was unable to finish it (perhaps because of illness or death) another carver would not be able to complete it, as the continuity of the ritual had been broken.

Because of objects and histories like this one, the Raymond and Laura Wielgus Gallery has become my favorite space on the IU campus. For me, it is a place to think, reflect, learn, and enjoy.

If you would like to tell us about your favorite object in the museum’s collection contact us at iuam@indiana.edu

Eskenazi Museum of Art Website

 

How An Exhibition Comes Together

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Emma Kessler, curatorial assistant for the Art of Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas at the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University

Ever wonder what goes into planning and installing an exhibition at a museum? Today’s blog post answers that question. Emma Kessler, curatorial assistant for the Arts of Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas, takes us through the process of envisioning and installing the museum’s new Focalpoint exhibition Hats as Materials of Culture on view now through May 7, 2017 in the museum’s third floor gallery of Arts of Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas.

The Raymond and Laura Wielgus Gallery houses the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s collection of art from Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas. While the vast majority of the objects in this gallery remain on continuous display, the Focalpoint section features a series of rotating exhibitions. Here we create two or three exhibitions a year on a range of topics. Recent displays include the art of ancient Peru, a look at fakes and forgeries, costumes and ornaments from New Guinea, and an investigation into tradition and authenticity in Native American art.

When deciding on a new Focalpoint exhibition, we first consider whether the topic can be linked to another exhibition, an event occurring on campus, or a new collection that has come to the museum. Our current Focalpoint, Hats: Materials of Culture, corresponds with the course Art, Craft, and Technology in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is being offered by the Department of Art History this spring. Even after the topic was selected, there was still a lot to narrow down. For example, would the exhibition look at one type of material or one kind of technology? One of the ideas I considered was a focus on beadwork. I would have looked at a wide range of objects from across Africa and made by a variety of peoples, but out of a single material—beads.

In preparation for Focalpoint, I put together several proposals, one for each of my exhibition ideas. They included 20 to 30 objects that could be used in the exhibition along with a short paragraph of the ideas and topics that could be addressed. Interestingly, this step in the process often reveals whether or not an exhibition will work. As it turns out, the beadwork idea did not work. While the objects were extremely interesting, they did not work together as well as I had hoped. As it turned out, a different idea worked much better—to create an exhibition centered on a single object type, but featuring a wide range of materials and a number of different techniques. In this case, the object type was hats.

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