The topic of how museum collections are stored has always fascinated me. What do the museum professionals do with artwork and artifacts during the indefinite periods of time until the next exhibition? How do museum's protect their collections for the long term?
After organizing the 2014 Professional Development Seminar "Collectors, Collection and YOU" with Brigitte Martin for the SNAG Conference, I was all the more curious for insights into how collectors and museums store their collections.
Fortunately, social networking recently fulfilled this dream as Dr. Daniel Viragh invited my daughter and me to view the collection and behind-the-scenes storage at The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, CA. I immediately said "Yes, yes, yes."
Only a year or so ago, The Magnes moved into a newly renovated building in the heart of downton Berkeley.
The Magnes Collection is one of the largest collections of Judaica in the world. In fact, collecting and research is their primary focus. Now, as part of the University of California at Berkeley, they have a new home and renewed capabilities.
The new building houses most of the collection on site. The display areas are fascinating, of course, but to my special delight, the exhibition space includes built-in observation windows for visitors to view into the collection storage space (below).
Those large beige steel monoliths in the background of the photo above, are enormous movable cabinets on rollers with adjustable shelves and drawers. Because the storage cabinets move, valuable space can be dedicated to storage, and only one walkway is open at a time.
Storage is serious business for a museum. They take this responsibility very seriously. The investment in the collection merits an investment in the storage equipment as well. For example, all the steel cabinets were on tracks. In these photos, look just behind the registrar's feet. Notice the track in the floor which enables these cabinets to slide across the floor. They can move to be closely packed yet open up a walkway and access space as needed into more drawers and cabinets.
At the push of a button, the registrar, Julie Franklin, moved an entire cabinet, and opened drawer after drawer for us to see the contents. (More about the items in the cabinets in a future post.)
Curator, Dr. Francesco Sagnolo, opened a few more cabinets just to offer us a taste of the treasures contained within.
The variety of mechanisms and devices to store the vast diversity of works in the collection was amazing.
Of course, the entire room was climate controlled. It felt refreshingly cool and dry.
Inside the drawers were marvelous antiquities and historic objects, all protected for posterity.
Notice that each object is nestled in it's own protective cubby made from foam and cardboard so it can't move around.
Every item has an inventory/acquisition number which corresponds to The Magnes Collection Flickr album of the collection. In this drawer the cups with multiple handles were for ritual hand washing. The multiple handles allow the user to switch hands.
Note the paper tags in the above photo. The registrar didn't even want the paper to touch the metal to avoid a reaction between the two materials. She would try to prop the paper tag on the edge of the cubby.
Some objects were stored on shelves to make them more accessible for viewing without opening a cabinet or drawer.
Every object on a shelf had a custom made foam core box so it could not move or fall over.
If the curator wanted to look more closely at some object, he could pick up the foam core support and padding without actually touching the object.
Our special guide, Dr. Daniel Viragh, Post Doctoral Fellow at The Magnes, earned his doctorate in Jewish History from UC Berkeley. He could read the Hebrew for us on 100-200 year old textiles and provided very knowledgeable context for many objects.
Tomorrow's post and for the next few days ....objects from The Magnes Collection, many more surprises and insights regarding the storage of museum collections.
Harriete Estel Berman
I will be lecturing at The Magnes Collection on October 29, 2014 at noon. Please come to this short lecture, and participate in the intimate conversation.