It’s that time of year when things slow down, ever so slightly. The spring exhibitions are open and there’s a little breathing room before we need to start devoting all of our energy to the fall exhibition. This is a great time to catch up on the tasks that have accumulated on my desk. One of the most important responsibilities in Collections is inventorying: to verify locations and assess the condition of all the works of art in all of our collections. It sounds daunting, doesn’t it?
There are two different types of inventory that we utilize: comprehensive and location. A comprehensive inventory is just that, an inventory of the permanent, study, and loan collections, complete with thorough condition reports and photographs. Depending on the size of the museum or gallery and staff resources, this should (ideally) be completed annually. A location inventory has a smaller scope; it verifies that the accession number on the object matches the record, is in the correct location, and if the condition has changed. This is not as time intensive as a comprehensive inventory and should be completed if a comprehensive inventory isn’t possible. Because of our staff size, we like to alternate annually between the two.
Recall the condition reports from my February 19, 2019 blog entry on the installation of the Sidesaddle exhibition. The inventory process requires that a condition report is filled out for each object and retained in the object folder. Along with the basic information, like title, artist, medium, and date, I also record a brief description of the object, including any defects, like warping of a canvas or scratches on a frame. Visuals are always helpful when documenting changes. I try to take as thorough a reference as possible, highlighting any potential issues that should be tracked.
The oldest work of art in our art collection is A Horse in a Landscape, an oil on panel by Abraham van Calreat (c. 1690). That’s over three centuries of exposure and changing hands and an expansive time frame for it to be dropped, hung above a fireplace, or placed in direct sunlight. Part of an inventory is to make note of chipped frames and discoloration which are just two possibilities of the previous three scenarios. Despite its age, A Horse in a Landscape is in very good condition.
Works on paper have other potential concerns such as being susceptible to foxing. Those are the small brownish spots you might see speckled about in old books or prints. The print below has evidence of foxing on the right border.
Another example of a noteable paper condition issue is seen in the image on the left below of the 1923 wedding invitation of the artist Paul Desmond Brown (American, 1893-1958) to his wife, Harriet. The discoloration is easily noticed. What would have caused this? Perhaps it was displayed in a frame where, over time, the light caused it to change.
The backside of the paper below has several issues including discoloration, missing elements, accretions, tears, buckling, and flaking.
A comprehensive inventory also serves another purpose. Do the works of art under scrutiny still meet the mission of the organization? As museums and galleries evolve, their mission statements and policies may need to evolve too. This could include adjusting the scope of the collection plan, meaning that objects in the collection may be better suited for interpretation at a different institution. If that is the case, further evaluation is warranted.
An inventory can be a long process, but it serves an important purpose; it is one of the principal aspects of Collections Management. For now, if you need me, I’ll be in storage, listening to big band music, and plugging away at this year’s inventory.
Lauren Kraut is the Collections Manager at the National Sporting Library & Museum. Her primary focus is to maintain and preserve the works of art in the collection and on loan. Email her at lkraut@NationalSporting.org