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WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

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Friday, June 5, 2020

Treasure Discoveries of a Different Kind

We’ve all had that face-palm moment, where something was handled differently way back when, and you now need to bring it up to the 21st century. For collection professionals, these moments usually occur while working in the storage rooms, frequently conducting inventory. There will always be that one mysterious object sitting on a shelf, waiting for new staff to rediscover its valuable information. Hopefully, this object has a thorough catalogue card tucked under it so as not to be lost or confused with another item sharing the same location. Unfortunately, there is no card with the object and sometimes the card isn’t where you think it would be. This face-palm scenario recently occurred for me while working in storage.

Fig. 1 Textile boxes

For decades, generations of WAM staff members passed on general knowledge of a gorgeous collection of textile fragments, carefully mounted onto muslin frames, stored inside a wall of cabinets. I myself have pulled a frame out to look at a piece of Old Italian velvet and would observe odd numbers along the side, not matching our standard identification system for artwork in the permanent collection (we call them object numbers). My initial response was that these likely were educational materials used when the Museum School was still open and were then transferred to collection storage at some point, either to be considered part of the permanent collection, or not. There the mystery remained.

Recently, I shifted around some artworks blocking access to another cabinet door along the wall. Curiosity got the better of me and I just had to open it to see what other framed treasures were there. Spoiler alert—there were no artworks behind that door, but rather three hardboard catalogue card holders labeled: WAM TEXTILES (Fig. 1, above). Upon opening the first drawer labelled
Box I, I knew straight away that I just rediscovered a different kind of treasure—a gold mine of information.

Fig. 2 Open textile drawer

Inside were catalogue cards for each textile fragment mounted on the muslin frames, carefully filled out with as much information as a card can hold, including a small black-and-white thumbnail of the textile fragment in question.

Fig. 3 Textile catalogue card

To my delight there was an introductory card that explained the origin of the textiles as well as their object number—so they are part of the permanent collection, as 1919.193.  My excitement was quickly diminished when I went back to our collections management database to pull up the object number provided.

“No matches.” What?

Not long after, I realized I would need to enter all 689 records into the database. One may think that I was quite put out by this realization; however, a few days later, concern surrounding COVID-19 was rising, and we were informed that we would be working from home for the foreseeable future. I am incredibly thankful that I can do a lot of my work from home—and this project specifically was going to fill in any downtime there may be. So, the three boxes came home with me and are getting assigned an object number, one catalogue card at a time.

Believe it or not, these sorts of discoveries are not as uncommon in the museum world as one might think. When there is over a century of institutional knowledge, cracks in the information chain are bound to develop over time. For decades, the developed system of having the textile catalogue cards separate from the rest of the permanent collection catalogue cards made sense.

At some point, at least by the time we converted the catalogue cards to digital records in a computer, this institutional knowledge was lost, and the mystery developed. I am sure what spurred further mystery to these items were the different groupings of numbers on the frames, which correlate to the information on the catalogue cards, rather than to object numbers.

Now that we are conducting our thorough inventory of the permanent collection and various loaned object holdings, it is the best time to transition this information from the 20th-century filing/tracking system to the 21st-century digital system. Let’s hope that when I return to my office, another group of mysterious catalogue cards do not magically appear somewhere else in storage!

—Sarah Gillis, Associate Registrar for Collection Documentation
    June 5, 2020

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