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

Lou Block: An Unexpected Slice of Life

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Image: Lou Block (American, 1895-1969). Conversation No. 1, ca. 1960. Gelatin silver print. Henry Holmes Smith Archive, Eskenazi Museum of Art 200.X.18.1

Today we bring you a look into the work of American photographer Lou Block by Nan Brewer, the Eskenazi Museum of Art’s Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper. Block’s work, along with that of other influential photography professors, including Minor White, Allen Downs, Aaron Siskind, and Indiana University’s first photography professor, Henry Holmes Smith, will be on view in a new installation, Modern Pioneers: Professors of Photography, from November 8, 2016, through May 7, 2017, in the museum’s first floor gallery of the Art of the Western World. 

Lou Block is primarily known as a muralist, illustrator, and arts administrator, and served as a supervisor for the WPA Federal Art Project in New York City. During his tenure with the FAP he raised issues of racism and segregation within the government-sponsored organization, particularly the rejection of designs by black artists for the Harlem Hospital. Block was also involved politically with the Artists Congress and Artists’ Union, which organized an artists’ strike in 1934. Having worked with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera on his controversial Rockefeller Center murals, Block understood the power of art to move people and recognized the importance of truthfulness.

Inspired by his friend Ben Shahn, Block took up the camera as well as the brush and pen. He approached photography with the same honesty and creative passion as he did his other work. During his years in New York City he photographed numerous mural projects (many now lost), the Artists’ Union strike, and studies for a mural proposed at Riker’s Island. In 1951 Block moved to Kentucky, where he taught painting and creative photography at the University of Louisville. His later photographs include shots taken in Louisville, Mexico, New York City, and New Jersey.

Block’s photographs continued in the documentary tradition of the Farm Security Administration, while embracing the grittier, urban style of the New York Photo League. This image with its closely cropped focus on two foreground figures offers an intimate look into their private world. Never overly sentimentalizing or condescending to his subjects, Block used a 35mm camera to record as unobtrusively as possible a fleeting moment in time. While the interaction between the women is the central focus of the picture, the blurred tapestry of street life seen in the background provides the social context. Like the street photography of Robert Frank—whose book The Americans was published in the US in 1959—Block’s image relies on gesture and unexpected juxtapositions to reveal the whole story.

Nanette Esseck Brewer

The Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper

Eskenazi Museum of Art Website