Working Knowledge

March 6, 2018
Students in the Harvard Extension School course Managing Art Museum Collections examine a vintage glass plate negative. They undertook a project to catalogue and rehouse objects from a newly acquired collection.

What’s the best way to learn about how to manage museum collections? For 12 students enrolled in the Harvard Extension School’s Museum Studies program, it’s by doing the work itself.

Students in the course Managing Art Museum Collections, held at the Somerville Research Facility, took part in hands-on activities that gave them a rare glimpse into the inner workings of collections management and archives departments. Students were able to choose one project out of three to work on throughout the three-week course. They also heard from professionals on topics that ranged from curating and conserving works of art to copyright issues.

By being immersed within the museums, students were able to receive personalized training and extensive practice in object handling and processing, in working with the collections database TMS (The Museum System), and in devising ideas for custom long-term art storage, among other skills.

“It’s one thing to learn in the classroom, but it’s another to get your hands dirty actually doing the work,” said Susan McFarlane, a student whose project involved measuring, cataloguing, and placing in envelopes hundreds of recently acquired vintage glass plate negatives. “Of course, we didn’t really get our hands dirty,” she added with a smile, pointing to the nitrile gloves she and her partner wore as they handled objects during the class.

The course was led and organized by Jennifer Allen, director of collections management, and Vanessa Marcoux, collections management coordinator. Other museums staff were in charge of overseeing the three projects: collections care manager Sara Bisi worked with students to build custom storage materials; senior associate registrar for collections Kathryn Press and assistant registrar Karoline Mansur guided students in rehousing the glass plate negatives; and senior archivist and records manager Megan Schwenke taught students about archival digitization and cataloging.

“We were excited about the opportunity to enhance the reach of education in the fields of collections management, administration, and archives,” Allen said. “The course provided the students with a unique perspective on the logistical arrangements and divisional functions that support curatorial, conservation, and public program initiatives.”

  • A student makes measurements on archival corrugated board as the first step in building a custom box for storage.
    of A student makes measurements on archival corrugated board as the first step in building a custom box for storage.
  • Students work in pairs to examine and measure glass plate negatives on small light pads (light boxes).
    of Students work in pairs to examine and measure glass plate negatives on small light pads (light boxes).
  • Kathryn Press, senior associate registrar for collections, center, shows an object to a group of students interested in studying new acquisitions.
    of Kathryn Press, senior associate registrar for collections, center, shows an object to a group of students interested in studying new acquisitions.

Rehousing New Acquisitions

Led by Press and Mansur, six students worked with the glass plate negatives. This collection of approximately 850 objects was donated to the museums by artist and printer Gary Schneider and his partner, artist John Erdman. (Photographs from their joint printing business will be featured in the upcoming exhibition Analog Culture: Printer’s Proofs from the Schneider/Erdman Photography Lab, 1981–2001.) Many of the negatives date back to the early 1900s and had been collected by Schneider and Erdman as reference materials. The museums (as well as Schneider and Erdman) had little prior knowledge about these materials, but documenting them promises to aid future scholars.

Working in pairs, the students removed the negatives from their original storage materials of paper and glassine (glossy, semi-transparent paper). They measured and recorded each negative’s dimensions, and, using a light pad (light box), identified and documented what was pictured in each composition. Finally, they placed each negative in new, archival-quality envelopes for long-term storage.

Despite the exacting and time-consuming process, the students rehoused more than half (about 450) of the negatives, a great benefit to the collections management department.

Best Practices in Storage

Another group worked with Sara Bisi to build custom storage materials for the long-term protection of three-dimensional objects. Bisi presented the students with a number of examples, tips, and techniques for choosing safe materials for art storage, depending on the size, shape, and composition of the objects. They spent the rest of the class creating commonly used enclosures and supports, including clamshell boxes, drop-front boxes, inserts for boxed textiles, and “snakes,” or soft, cylindrical fabric-and-glass bead supports for three-dimensional objects such as terracotta pottery.

Caitlin Stone, who worked on this project, said she was surprised that everyday domestic skills could come in handy when creating custom museum storage structures. For instance, Stone said, she used an iron and a sewing machine to quickly create a large batch of “snakes.”

  • Collections care manager Sara Bisi, right, explains the process of making “snakes,” or soft supports for three-dimensional objects.
    of Collections care manager Sara Bisi, right, explains the process of making “snakes,” or soft supports for three-dimensional objects.
  • Caitlin Stone, a student in the class, constructs her own snake using a sewing machine.
    of Caitlin Stone, a student in the class, constructs her own snake using a sewing machine.
  • During a final presentation to classmates, Stone shares highlights from her experience creating custom supports.
    of During a final presentation to classmates, Stone shares highlights from her experience creating custom supports.

A volunteer at Harvard’s Semitic Museum, Stone said she was excited to bring her new knowledge of making these supports back to that museum, among other new ideas for storage. She was also struck by the precision required to build boxes of various materials. “Box-making is actually really mathematical and fairly complicated,” she said. “If your measurements are off at all, it’s not going to come together.”

Lisa Sloben, a classmate in the same group, said one of her prime takeaways was new expertise on how to store textiles. Sloben is the curator of collections at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. She noted that the textiles at her museum are currently stored in tissue. “I now know that there are better materials to use,” she said, pointing to snakes made of muslin and polyester. “I can go back to my institution and share specific handling and storage tips with them,” Sloben said.

Archives Appreciation

The practical nature of the coursework also appealed to students who chose the third project, focused on preservation and increased access to archival material through digitization. This group worked with Schwenke to digitize and catalogue assorted media from the popular collection Photographs of the Harvard Art Museums, 1895–2003 (HC 22), which features the museums’ exhibitions, events, people, and spaces. The students scanned print photographs, negatives, and 35mm slides, and created corresponding archival object records in TMS.

“You just can’t get this type of practical experience of working in a museum—behind the scenes, with the professionals—anywhere else.”

Alice West, a student in this group, said what she learned would be valuable in other areas of her life. “Now I can talk about what a negative is, what a positive is, and what is required to scan them,” said West, who curates an online photography collection, but had never before worked with original archival images.

“Archives are wonderful resources,” she continued, as she prepared to scan a 1931 photograph showing the display of Degas’s sculpture Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen (1880) in the Fogg Museum. “We can see this piece of art in the gallery today, but through this archival photograph we can also see where it’s been.”

Coming to better understand such details about object histories was just one of many important lessons students reported from the course. Gaining a more nuanced perspective on museum jobs was another. “You just can’t get this type of practical experience of working in a museum—behind the scenes, with the professionals—anywhere else,” said McFarlane. “I’ve learned a good deal about different museum jobs, and where I might fit in.”