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What does a collections manager do?

Author: Jo Wehrly, Collections Manager

This month we are fundraising to help us rehouse our contemporary jewellery and ensure this taonga is kept for generations to come. You can make your donation here.

With all this talk about our collection we invited our talented and dedicated Collections Manager to explain her role at the museum and tell us about the important work she does. We hope you enjoy this peek behind the scenes.

We are not, as the title might have you believe, in the business of debt collection. No, collection managers and registrars are charged with taking care of the artworks and museum objects that are in our collections, or temporarily under our roof and in our care.

Elena Gee, Beach Pebble Collar 1989, Collection of The Dowse Art Museum, purchased 1990 & Georg Beer, Bead necklace 1996, Collection of The Dowse Art Museum, purchased 1996

Elena Gee, Beach Pebble Collar 1989, Collection of The Dowse Art Museum, purchased 1990 & Georg Beer, Bead necklace 1996, Collection of The Dowse Art Museum, purchased 1996

The goal is to take care of these pieces and ensure they’re around for many, many years to come. We do this by controlling the environment and conditions (i.e. temperature, humidity, light levels) that the artworks are exposed to and limiting factors which might cause damage, or shorten the life of an object. It can get a little complicated as we deal with so many different kinds of artworks; from oil paintings, ceramic works, jewellery, and photographs to works made from any number of non-traditional materials; plastics, plant matter, born-digital objects, rubber, even leather, latex and lichen!

This is the reason we have a dedicated collection store where our artworks live, safely housed for the majority of the time. If we were to hang a photograph on the wall for an extended period, even with controlled lighting it would fade with time and have a limited life. We have to be careful with what we let into our building as well because we don’t want to introduce any pests, like insects, that can damage artworks. We also have to make sure that the works are handled in a careful way, and as little as possible – bring on the cotton gloves! Unfortunately when objects are moved they are at greatest risk of being damaged.

Thomas Clater, Scandal! Only Think, Collection of The Dowse Art Museum, gifted by J and R Calquhoun to the City of Lower Hutt

Thomas Clater, Scandal! Only Think, Collection of The Dowse Art Museum, gifted by J and R Calquhoun to the City of Lower Hutt

The physical care of artworks is one thing, but all of this is futile if you can’t find an object within your store. That is why documentation is an extremely important part of the job. We have a detailed database where we record as much information as we can, from where an object is at any given moment, to the dimensions, its exhibition history, and how or why it was made.

All this information is made available to staff within The Dowse as well as colleagues from outside our organisation to enable research, publication and to create exhibitions. There’s a lot of lending and borrowing between institutions as well as from private collectors and artists that allow our curators and the team here to produce the varied and interesting exhibitions that we do. Facilitating this process means lots more documentation; facility reports, loan agreements, receipts in and out, object lists etc. Careful consideration is given every time a work is put on display or lent out, to manage the balance between access and ensuring the longevity of an object.

When a new artwork is acquired, usually by purchase or donation to The Dowse, we arrange getting the object here, check its condition, assign an individual accession number and create a file and database record. The work will be photographed, precisely measured and safe storage created to protect it. For example last year we purchased works by Ngahuia Harrison (Ngātiwai, Ngāpuhi), Neke Moa (Ngati Kahungunu, Kai Tahu, Ngati Porou, Tuwharetoa) and Lonnie Hutchinson (Ngāi Tahu and Samoan heritage) in a purposeful decision to strengthen the representation of women and Māori artists in our collection. These works need to be documented then framed, a special box or crate will be built and they may be included in future exhibitions. Or in the case of Neke Moa’s Mauri Stones, in our recent exhibition The Language of Things: Meaning and Value in Contemporary Jewellery.

Neke Moa, Mauri Stones 2016, Collection of The Dowse Art Museum, purchased 2017

Neke Moa, Mauri Stones 2016, Collection of The Dowse Art Museum, purchased 2017

One way to look at it is by saying that collections managers and registrars are the voice of an object. We gather information to make careful choices on everything from the way a work is handled or displayed to where and how it is stored. We are here to advocate for and advise on what is best for the artwork in the long term – and we mean really long term. We are trying to make sure The Dowse’s collection of beautiful objects will be here for your grandchildren – and many more generations after.

We are currently collecting donations to create a new home for our contemporary jewellery collection. To learn more and make your own donation click the banner below.

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