This week the WAMTAC visited object storage with the amazing Mike McKee! Mike is an art handler at the Walters and on any given day he can be found with cotton gloves, a cart, and a priceless piece of history. Moving the art from storage or to the conservation lab, packing pieces for travel, or fitting cases for an exhibition are just a few tasks that he and his posse of art handlers undertake on a daily basis.
For security and safety reasons (the safety of the art, that is) we couldn’t take any photos inside of the actual storage area, but here we are crowing into the hallway and waiting with bated breath for Mike to take us to where the paintings, drawings, objects, and artifacts that aren’t on view are safely secured.
The storage area is just one of several locations inside the museum where works of art within the collection are stored for safe keeping. The area we visited is referred to as the “Long Museum” and it must be kept at a cool 70 degrees and 50% humidity. Once inside, we had a chance to see the drawers and flat files containing delicate scroll paintings, ancient papyrus, and sketches by the likes of Barye stacked from floor to ceiling. Peering down the hall we saw rows and rows of shelves with fragile Asian enamels and carved portraits from ancient Yemen. At the end of a long corridor next to a large ancient amphora a bust of Benjamin Franklin smiled back at us.
Each work of art within the collection has its own unique accession number that helps the registrar and staff catalog and track the piece. In the digital record system those accession numbers function like the Dewey Decimal System and correspond to the condition report, acquisition records, and exhibition information for each piece. Out in the galleries, an object’s accession number can be found at the end of the label and you can search the on-line catalog of the museum collection by accession number.
Mike showed us the large rolling “screens” covered with canvases and panel paintings in gilded frames. The Renaissance, Baroque, 19th-Century, decades of art history traversed by curators, historians, scholars , and conservators inches from our fingertips. Madeleine raised the question, “Who decides what goes out into the gallery and what stays hidden in storage?”
Mike explained that conservators and curators often make the decisions regarding the works of art displayed on the museum floor and Madeleine regarded that some of the objects in front of us now may never be seen by the public. We imagined a shopping mall sized “reject museum” full of the artworks overflowing from object storage in museums around the world.
At the National Gallery, curators have chosen the works of art to secure in a “black box” in case of an emergency or disaster. Strict criteria are used to decide which works of art will “re-populate” art history in the event of an “Artistic Armageddon”. The Walters may not have an “emergency stash” that we know of yet, but if we stay on Mike’s good side, who knows what else we can convince him to share?
Mike also added that conservation concerns and restrictions, the same that inform pieces chosen for special exhibitions or loans, also can dictate the time a work of art can spend out on view. Light, heat, humidity, and exposure are important considerations that the curators and other museum staff must remember when mounting an exhibit for display. Exhibition teams of staff from throughout the museum come together years in advance to begin planning and funding an exhibition and the process for a large show can take over four years from start to finish, often longer!
Mike pointed out a few of his favorite “hidden treasures”, including an Art Deco era wooden cabinet and a mirror with a sculpted frame of wooden angels with feathery wings. Although he has been working with the collection for years, he always manages to find something new and exciting hidden in the recesses of the “Long Museum”.
“The other day at the very back corner of the very farthest screen I found this great little painting,” he tells us.
After starring with gaping mouths and unblinking eyes for about an hour, we filed out of the Long Museum in awe of the millennia of quietly hiding works of art waiting for their turn to be re-discovered.