By Margaret Hallinan, Associate Registrar for Telfair Museums
Behind the scenes is a multitude of dedicated employees keeping the museum looking its best. Of those staff members, my colleague and I bear the title Registrar. As registrars are rarely seen by the public, you might be curious about our role. At its heart, a registrar is a person responsible for the care and management of the museum’s permanent collection, in addition to loaned works of art, and all related paperwork pertaining to the objects. Our job is not just limited to Telfair Museums’ permanent collection, but to accomplish the following and more:
- processing incoming donations
- organizing incoming and outgoing loans
- assisting curators with designing and installing exhibitions including shipping, writing contracts, sending receipts, and keeping track all the moving parts
- monitoring environmental conditions in storage and the galleries to prevent objects from degrading
- researching the objects.
I’d like to give you a snapshot of a typical day in the life of a registrar, but to be honest, we do not have a standard day composed of a set schedule with specific tasks to complete as presented in the list of various responsibilities above. Instead, each day we do what needs to be done. The following is as close to a normal day as can be.
Each morning, the staff has one hour to accomplish any projects that require being present in the galleries or other public spaces—in other words, before the museum opens. For my colleagues and I, that time is divided between cleaning objects on exhibit, inspecting fragile works of art composed of organic or volatile materials that degrade rapidly, checking the thermostats are displaying a stable temperature and humidity level to preserve the objects, moving objects in an uncrowded and secure environment, and assisting the curators in tweaking displays—most weeks doing one or more of these functions simultaneously.
As Telfair’s Associate Registrar, I spend the remainder of the morning improving permanent collection storage through organizing, cleaning, and processing individual objects among the thousands in our collection. When objects are not on display or have recently been acquired, they have what we call a home location in storage. A home location is a particular room, shelf, and box where the object rests away from the bright lights, fluctuating temperatures, and dirt that can be accumulated while on view. It is the registrar’s job to ensure each object has a safe, climate-controlled home. Much of my time is spent building custom acid-free boxes with trays and dividers filled with tissue and foam nests and making detailed labels with basic identification information for the outside of each box, including but not limited to the artist’s name, title, date of the object, the materials, dimensions and, most importantly, the object identification number. Furthermore, checking that every object contained within that box has a matching object identification number as is displayed on the exterior label, and if not, marking the number in a discreet location on the artwork. This number is comprised of the year of donation or purchase, an ID number for the donor, and a number for each object from that donation group (e.g. 2018.1.1, which incidentally can be seen on our labels in each exhibition). The object’s number is how registrars track the location of the object and the documents related to that particular work of art.
While perfecting storage, on occasion I will take notes about the objects to better improve our knowledge of the piece and assess the work’s current physical condition, for example, a chip in a teacup. It is critical to examine each piece as frequently as possible to determine whether the object is stable and in its best condition to be placed on exhibit. Simultaneously notating markings, labels, or inscriptions found on the work aids in generating a provenance. The word provenance refers to the history of the object or the line of succession—how the work of art passed from institution to institution or from person to person, ultimately arriving at Telfair. Museums search for these breadcrumbs to provide evidence of legal ownership and authenticity.
Much of my afternoon is devoted to provenance research, collecting comparative primary resources from our institutional archive that contains a copy of every exhibition catalog, administrative meeting minutes, old permanent collection inventories, and a myriad of other personal documentation our archivist has collected from our donors, artists, and members since the museum opened. The information produced from this research and uncovered by our curatorial team is recorded in our digital collections database and printed for our physical files on each object. The database primarily consists of a catalog record for every artifact in the collection. Inserting and updating this data is rewarding, but I take even greater pride in developing our newest website feature of a public online permanent collections database.
Far from the days of working in a dim, dusty, and quiet institution, my day can provide a variety of new knowledge and experience. Whether it’s inspecting an object at acquisition or one that has been in our collection for decades, to compiling all available data in an easily accessible record to educate the curious, a typical day can take on many forms. My ultimate goal, which I strive to meet every day, is to help the museum fulfill its mission of sharing “awareness, appreciation, and understanding of the arts.”