Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Night at the Museum: Accurate or Not?

This weekend, I went to the movies to see Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Being both a museum employee and former Smithsonian staff member, I was interested to see how Hollywood would interpret the behind-the-scenes workings of the museum world. The movie was definitely fun, but not what I would call completely "museum-accurate."

Styrofoam packing peanuts: Bad.First of all, the packing methods shown for the objects were cutting edge fifty years ago. Straw has been replaced with archival materials like Ethafoam, Volara, and Tyvek. Plus, I wouldn't want to sift through off-gassing Styrofoam packing peanuts to try to find all those unwrapped diorama figures, risking damage to their fragile limbs and weapons. I was pleased to see the object handlers at least using white gloves, though I did cringe when they man-handled things a bit roughly!

I did laugh out loud when blueprints of the Federal Archives were easily hacked into by a young kid on his laptop computer. I can guarantee that the storage layouts of the Smithsonian are safely hidden from the public. And, along those lines, while I've been in the basement of the Smithsonian Castle many times, I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to confirm or deny the concept of the Archives residing many levels underground below the National Mall.

The art is alive!However, the sets depicting object storage areas were surprisingly museum-accurate, and it was definitely a treat to watch the objects on the shelves come alive. Seeing the paintings in the art museum become windows into other worlds inspired me to wonder what it would be like to step into the stormy, turbulent seascape of our Eight Bells or join the boxer in the ring of our Salutat.

Tablet of AhkmenrahAll-in-all, the movie was entertaining, regardless of the inaccuracies. I've been in the Addison many nights after it closed and the lights were out, and while I haven't seen anything move or come alive, who knows what might happen if we ever have the Tablet of Ahkmenrah on loan to us!

James M. Sousa
Associate Registrar for Collections and Archives

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

L’art américain, de 1850 à 1950. L’époque de la maturité

I recently had the opportunity to travel up north to the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec in Québec City, Canada, to spend a week overseeing the unpacking and installation of our travelling exhibition Coming of Age: American Art, 1850s-1950s opening there this Thursday, May 21st. While the installation went smoothly, and was accomplished by a very professional crew, there were some interesting things to note.

Galleries at the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du QuébecFirst of all, the Musée's installation process was unlike any I had participated in before. Typically, we unpack all the artwork first, check their condition, and then the Curators and Preparators spend time fine-tuning the arrangement of the objects before finally installing everything. The Musée did things a bit differently.

Due to the limited space in their exhibition galleries, they unpacked only four or five crates at a time. I would then work with their conservator, Francine Gauthier, to condition report each object before it was immediately installed on the wall. The Musée had already worked out and finalized the arrangement of the artwork beforehand. A small architectural model of the gallery was used for reference. Painted with colors matching those the actual galleries' walls, it was fitted with scale replicas of each object in the show. This takes a great amount of skill...regardless of how well you work out a layout beforehand, it is rarely equivalent to seeing the actual objects together, and many times, you have to change the layout as you go. At the Musée, however, there would be no changes. They were so confident, in fact, they had already installed the lighting before we unpacked to shine on the spots on the walls where each object would be hung!

The invitation to the opening of L’art américain, de 1850 à 1950.Secondly, the crew spoke French. Most of the time, I honestly did not understand a word they were saying. The only time I heard English was when I was being spoken to. It went well, regardless, though, and I actually ended up learning a few words of French in the end.

I encourage all our readers to visit L’art américain, de 1850 à 1950. L’époque de la maturité. It will be on view through September 7th. The show looks fantastic in Québec City and it is your last opportunity to see our "greatest hits" before we reopen next year!

James M. Sousa
Associate Registrar for Collections and Archives

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Beginning of a New Beginning

We recently marked a very special occasion...the staff of the Addison came together for a move meeting. It was not our first move meeting, we've had many of those over the last few years. What made this one special was that it was the first move meeting that concentrated on the move BACK into the museum. It marked the beginning of a new beginning for the Addison Gallery.

We have a date tentatively set for our grand reopening to the public. It's not something I can announce here just yet, but it's about a year from now, assuming construction on the addition and renovation continues at its current pace. The move back into the museum will begin months ahead of our reopening date. We have to move all our "stuff" back in first: office furniture, books, tools, supplies, archives, files, and, of course, the staff. Then, lastly, and certainly not least, the artwork, including the reinstallation of our Manship fountain in the rotunda.

Added to this is reinstalling artwork on each freshly painted wall of every exhibition gallery in the museum. Plans call for us to open with a grand show comprised completely of our permanent collection, and the Curators are hard at work organizing that now. At certain times of day, you can find the Curators huddled over hundreds of collection images printed out on individual sheets of paper, trying to lay out the order of objects in the galleries in their minds. It has been a challenge for them to do this without reference; the collection is either packed and off site or touring in our Coming of Age exhibition and the galleries are off limits.

At our move meeting, we figured that the move in will be different, but no less challenging, than the move out, and that's why we're already starting to plan for it. And it will all be worth it when we finally welcome our first visitors through our renovated front doors around this time next year!

(Images are from a tour given to students from Phillips Academy's Architecture Class. Click the images to make them larger. Note the rotunda is without the Manship fountain.)

James M. Sousa
Associate Registrar for Collections and Archives