Please Touch the Art: Art Handling Training for Staff at the UMFA

A very exciting email popped into the inboxes of several UMFA staffers just the other day. It read, in part, that after a short PowerPoint training, staff would have the opportunity to “work with some objects down in the basement.”

If you haven’t caught on by now, I am not alone in my basement envy; it is the department that I get the most questions about from the students I work with, and from people who first learn that I work in the museum. Perhaps the most enigmatic part of any museum, The Basement (or wherever a museum’s collection is housed) is a sort of Bizarro World where you can see art that is not on view, and, if you’re someone with the proper training and permissions, actually touch the art.

Now, I’ve been in the basement a bunch since I started working here, but not once have I touched anything. Until just the other day.

Okay, this is not me: this is Education Intern Lydia Owens showing off her art handling skills.

Okay, this is not me: this is Education Intern Lydia Owens showing off her art handling skills.

Collections staff first had us put on some blue latex gloves, which Robyn instructed should fit quite snugly: the thin material and close fit aids in allowing for some tactile sensation, which can be important when handling delicate work.

We were taught to first visually examine an object for any weak or problem areas before we attempt to handle it. In the photo above, Education Intern Lydia Owens first gently tested the more delicate features of the Balinese rangda mask (which faithful readers might remember from this post) before picking it up and examining the inside.

Bali, Barong Dance Mask, Rangda the Witch Queen, C. 1970, Wood, paint, Gift of Owen D. Mort, Jr.

Bali, Barong Dance Mask, Rangda the Witch Queen, C. 1970, Wood, paint, Gift of Owen D. Mort, Jr.

Though the handling of any object should be kept to a minimum, it is sometimes necessary in order to move it from place to place, or to work on the object. And there are steps you can take to make sure this process goes smoothly. Some of them include:

* Inspect the object to make sure it can be moved in its current state

* Secure and ready the place you are moving the object to– be sure it’s ready to receive the object

* Visually inspect your intended path, and be sure that you’ll encounter no obstacles while moving from Point A to Point B.

* Ready the object to move– You may choose to secure it inside a container, or move it carefully with both hands. If you need additional help, summon a capable colleague.

* Move it– carefully!

Liz Shattler, our Collections Intern, gets some guidance from Robyn Haynie about examining an object before moving it from place to place.

Liz Shattler, our Collections Intern, gets some guidance from Robyn Haynie while examining a delicate object before moving it from place to place.

We also practiced moving paintings. All the stuff about moving objects applied here, too, and we learned to never lift a frame by the top and to communicate with your partner.

Education Intern, Rainey, and staffer, Jen, practice moving Thomas Wheatley's "Crossing the Ford" from 1785.

Education Intern, Rainey Butler, and staffer, Jen Prochazka, practice moving Thomas Wheatley’s “Crossing the Ford” from 1785.

We got to practice this nerve-wracking activity again and again until we were comfortable with it.

When preparing to move a painting on its padded the dolly, the frame should be flush and fully supported.

When preparing to move a painting on its padded the dolly, the frame should be flush and fully supported.

There is something a little nerve-wracking about handling things that are rare and precious. There is also something rebellious about doing something we’re told again and again not to do, in this case, touching the art. But, if I were to choose any word to describe the experience, perhaps it would be a simple one: fun.

In the above video you can see Jennifer Prochazka, our Public School Outreach Assistant, and Rainy Butler, an Education Intern, trying their hand at moving Thomas Wheatley’s “Crossing the Ford.” Look at that teamwork! Not to mention the style and grace!

This is just one more example to add to the list of the ways the UMFA staff is constantly seeking to educate ourselves and explore new things. We hope you’ll come into the museum with the same sense of adventure… but please don’t touch the art.*

* you can, however, check out some of our chances for interaction and touch, like in the exhibition Exploring Sustainability and Jillian Mayer’s salt 9. 

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