Shining a Light on the the Hidden Lives of Artworks
I’ve never worked in a museum that didn’t have storage issues. Museums like the Carnegie are collecting institutions, which means that they are constantly growing. But storage space is not infinite, and every once in a while, museums must take a hard look at their storage capacities and make a plan for rationalizing and expanding them. At Carnegie Museum of Art, we need to upgrade our onsite spaces and strategize for the future, and we have evolved a plan to tackle the problem. The first phase, which focuses on improvements to our existing facility, begins with a comprehensive inventory of artworks in the collection, and you can watch as it unfolds. A small, unconventional exhibition now on view, Uncrated: The Hidden Lives of Artworks, gives visitors a behind-the-scenes look at this part of the process. Up in the galleries you’ll see registrars, art handlers, conservators, and photographers assessing artworks in public view while their onsite storage space is renovated to increase efficiency and accessibility. In the next few years, more of the collection will be temporarily moved offsite during larger-scale renovations to our internal spaces. Phase two, still a ways down the road, will no doubt involve the development of new storage space.
Since more than 90% of our collection is in storage at any time, you might reasonably ask whether there are works that the museum no longer needs and could remove to make way for more important pieces. But deaccessioning—selling or otherwise eliminating works from a collection—is a delicate and time-consuming process. The collection of a public museum is part of the local and national patrimony, and many rules and procedures govern how it is handled. At Carnegie Museum of Art, we are required to establish clear title to the work, get up to three expert opinions on it (the number depends on the object’s dollar value), and attempt to notify donors or their descendants of our intention before the deaccession can be presented to the Board for approval. Finally, any proceeds that come from sales of artworks must be used to purchase artworks for the collection, and the original donors of the deaccessioned works must be given credit for the newly purchased ones.
Despite the rigors of the process, most museums in the United States adhere to the notion that careful deaccessioning is essential to the wise stewardship of a collection. Any museum that has been around for a while has works in storage that will never see the light of day. There are a variety of reasons for this: When they were young with little work to show, museums were often less discriminating about what they took into the collection. Decades later, some of those early acquisitions may prove to be forgeries or simply not up to the artistic standards that the museum has developed for itself. There are also museums that, having come to focus on a particular period or culture, seek to eliminate those works in the collection that no longer speak to their mission. As our storage renovation project proceeds, our curatorial teams will be carefully assessing the collection with these concerns in mind, and we anticipate that deaccessioning will be part of our overall plan.
In the meantime, I encourage you to visit Uncrated, which brings these hidden aspects of museum work to light. Every weekday that we are open, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., you’ll be able to watch our team as they examine objects, photograph them, build new crates, perform careful documentation, and even do minor conservation treatments. You can drop by anytime to work with the tools the staff uses in a special hands-on section, and get an in-depth look at nine particularly intriguing works. Follow the process at uncrated.cmoa.org and visit the exhibition throughout the run of the show to see new discoveries that the team has made.
Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the archive.