If you’ve visited LACMA’s Study Center for Photography and Works on Paper since it opened 10 months ago, you probably noticed that it’s a space unlike those you would normally expect at a museum. It's a hybrid space where the study, display, storage, and preservation of the permanent collection all come together. In the Study Center, scholars and groups visit by appointment to view work from the permanent collection of works on paper. However, when not in use by visiting scholars, members of the public are free to walk through and catch a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the museum. Embedded in the galleries in the Art of the Americas Building, the Study Center has a glass-walled room within it. Behind the glass is a workspace where museum registrars, conservators, and collection managers work to keep the collection safe and accessible. With museum staff visible beyond the glass, you can imagine why the space has been affectionately dubbed “the fishbowl.”
Throughout the summer, museum staff will be in “the fishbowl,” processing a recently acquired collection that came to the museum from Mark and Carolyn Blackburn. The acquisition of this important collection was also supported by funds raised at the museum’s 50th Anniversary gala and FIJI water. This astounding collection contains thousands of photographs, ephemera, and other objects from Polynesia. Among the many incredible works are historic images of Easter Island’s stone moai, rare photographs of Hawaiian royalty (on view until August 7 in Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Na Hulu Ali‘i), contemporary photographs of Hawai’i (currently on view in the Art of the Pacific galleries), numerous postcards, travel pamphlets, stereographs, cabinet cards, cartes-de-visite, glass negatives, and lantern slides, and even surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku’s redwood surfboard.
When large collections are accessioned by the museum, each object is meticulously reviewed and documented by some of LACMA’s behind-the-scenes superheros: the registrars. The registration department at LACMA has the overarching responsibility of caring for the art collection and one of their specific duties includes processing work as it enters the museum collection. The incoming loans registrar has the important task of documenting each object within the museum’s database.
She examines each piece, assigns and labels each with its own unique object number, and updates information specific to the object, including, if known, the name of the artist, title, date, dimensions, and medium. These basic details, commonly known as the tombstone information, are what you would normally find on wall labels in exhibitions.
Along with the tombstone information, the registrar makes note of any inscriptions, handwritten or printed, that appear on an object, and records a brief report about its physical condition. For example, works on paper can show the effects of aging—they can be brittle or misshapen, have creases, scratches, or stains. This initial condition report gives us a foundation for understanding how an object has changed over time. The Blackburn Collection contains thousands of photographic objects, many that are 100 years or older, and slight scratches and discoloration, while expected, are important to note.
After this basic condition evaluation, the objects are carefully rehoused into acid-free archival enclosures and then stored in the museum’s temperature- and humidity-controlled art storage areas. The object locations are tracked each step of the way so museum staff can easily search for a record in our database, and then find the corresponding physical object among the museum’s collection of roughly 130,000 art pieces.
As a final note, our registrars’ patience, thoughtfulness, and expertise are critical to the preservation of LACMA’s collection, but their work is complemented by several other departments. To support the processing of the Blackburn collection, our expert team of paper conservators identify each object’s specific photographic process, and our collection managers strategize and implement custom housing solutions for particularly fragile or unusually-sized works. We’ve also had the benefit of an active force of summer interns from Southern California colleges and universities. For all involved, the work of preserving the museum’s collection is never done, but we’re okay with that. We’re lucky to love what we do.
Make sure to come by the Study Center soon to see the registrars in action!