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Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art

What We Learned about the Hidden Lives of Artworks

As the exhibition Uncrated: The Hidden Lives of Artworks comes to a close, it’s worth looking back at the work conducted by the team of registrars, conservators, preparators, and curators that made the exhibition possible. When Uncrated was first proposed in fall 2014, it was viewed as an opportunity to assess and examine artworks long stored in gallery E—a little-known space located deep in the Heinz Galleries that had been used as storage for nearly 15 years. But as the idea developed, it became apparent that this exhibition offered more than an opportunity to review an inventory of artworks: it could also afford visitors a unique yet fleeting window into the museum’s permanent collection.

Over a nine-week period, the staff at Carnegie Museum of Art has offered visitors a candid look at the day-to-day activities that take place at an art museum—from revealing what percentage of the collection is on view at any given time (7%) and explaining how an artwork enters the collection, to mapping the countries of origin and showing the tools and hardware needed to install a work of art. While interacting with the public and answering questions about the permanent collection, staff also examined a variety of artworks long stored in gallery E. Among the featured works were British-born sculptor Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Yellow Bath), Israeli artist Buky Schwartz’s Big Video Chair (1987), and Karen Kilimnik’s I Don’t Like Mondays (1991), to name only a few. Details about each of the nine featured artworks are documented at uncrated.coma.org. And as a way to reflect on the exhibition, CMOA staffers have shared details about the work they conducted and the experience of working in full view of the public.

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Jessica Ruse, assistant to the registrar at CMOA, works during Uncrated, May 2015. Photo: Bryan Conley.

Tracking the Artworks

Orian Neumann, chief registrar at Carnegie Museum of Art, helped coordinate the activities that took place in the Heinz Galleries during Uncrated. As the official record keepers of the museum’s permanent collection, Neumann and her staff evaluated the artworks long stored in Heinz E. Included below is an overview of the work conducted by the registrars during the exhibition:

  • 178 locations of artworks were changed.
  • 373 new records were created in updates to the collections database.
  • 2,267 works were inventoried.
  • 576 objects were tagged and barcoded.
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Ellen Baxter, chief conservator at CMOA, repairs a painting during Uncrated, May 2015. Photo: Bryan Conley.

Caring for the Museum’s Collection

Ellen Baxter, chief conservator at CMOA, worked on a variety of conservation projects during the run of Uncrated. In addition to her conservation duties, Baxter noted that she enjoyed fielding questions from visitors and “advising multitudes of children to find the angel with the hot dog” that’s hidden in the John White Alexander murals adorning the walls of the Grand Staircase. Included below is an overview of the conservation work she conducted during the exhibition:

  • Two major paintings treatments were conducted: John White Alexander’s Aurora Leigh (1904) and Willem Wessing’s Portrait of a Gentleman (c. 1680).
  • Minor treatment conducted on panel C of Anselm Kiefer’s Midgard (1980–1985).
  • Minor treatment conducted to Philip Pearlstein’s Two Models, One Seated on Floor in Kimono (1980).
  • Worked with CMOA’s art preparators to structurally enhance the frame for the Horace Pippin painting Abe Lincoln’s First Book (1944).
  • Protective backing boards were added to a number of paintings.
  • Ten paintings were dusted.

Michael Belman, objects conservator at CMOA, on his experience during Uncrated: “Working in the Heinz Galleries over the course of the past nine weeks allowed me to have a more concentrated focus on my priority treatments: the Westinghouse refrigerator and freezer and the Caloric ‘White Sands’ range for the upcoming exhibition Silver to Steel: The Modern Designs of Peter Muller-Munk and Maternal Tenderness (1816) by John Flaxman for the Enlightened Eye exhibition. Uncrated took me out of my lab, where although I have a certain comfort, the variety of objects, tools, and materials can cause a bit of ADD. But at the same time I found the periodic conversation with the public very refreshing, and it was fascinating to hear each person’s questions and comments about our work.”

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Bryan Conley, staff photographer at CMOA, documented over 215 individual pieces of artwork during Uncrated. Photo: Bryan Conley.

Photographing the Permanent Collection

Laurel Mitchell, manager of rights, reproductions, and photographic services at CMOA, viewed Uncrated as an opportunity to update archival images for a variety of artworks in the museum’s permanent collection. Working with staff photographer Bryan Conley, as well as commercial photographer Tom Little, the museum’s collections database was bolstered with a host of new imagery:

  • Bryan Conley photographed over 215 individual pieces of artwork, which enabled 60 records to be updated in the museum’s collections database.
  • Tom Little photographed 26 objects. Three were new acquisitions that were able to be documented as a result of the large work space in the Heinz Galleries.
  • Total collection records that have new photography: 86.
  • Total individual objects photographed: 241.

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Protecting Artworks for Future Generations

Kurt Christian, chief preparator at Carnegie Museum of Art, used the Uncrated project as an opportunity to assess the condition of the crating and packaging of the artworks stored in Heinz E. Many of the artworks, such as Thaddeus Mosley’s Georgia Gate (1975), required new housings. Mindful of the long-term safety of such artworks, Christian and his team of preparators constructed a host of new, specialized crates. By the end of the exhibition, re-housings for 59 artworks were fabricated:

  • Proper pallets (20)
  • Travel frames (20)
  • Archival boxes (15)
  • Crates (4)
  • 20 empty crates were recycled.

Uncrated: The Hidden Lives of Artworks was on view in the Scaife Lounge at Carnegie Museum of Art from March 9, 2015–May 8, 2015. Over the course of nine weeks, a team of registrars, conservators, preparators, and curators shared their work with the public as they examined objects recently taken out of storage. Visit uncrated.cmoa.org to see what discoveries were made during the exhibition.