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Secrets of the Collections Department

What is the Collections Department at The Ringling? Collections is an umbrella term for three sub-departments that manage different aspects of the care and presentation of all of the objects at the museum: Registration, Conservation, and Exhibition Design and Preparation. Each of these departments divulged some of their behind the scenes activities and one thing about their work that they wish museum visitors knew!

Museum Preparators Hang a painting in a gallery at The Ringling

Registration: Safety Comes First on the Road with Artworks

Chief Registrar and Director of Collections Marian Carpenter is often asked what her role covers. Her reply? “If you have been to The Ringling, I am responsible for the safety of every object you see.” Registration is responsible for the documentation and tracking of all objects, including incoming and outgoing loans of objects; preparing agreements for donations, purchases, and loans and managing communication between lenders and donors; reviewing insurance coverage and facility reports; and coordinating shipping arrangements. 

Registrar from The Ringling Monitors the Safe Delivery of a painting on loan to the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Collections staff act as couriers for objects during domestic and international travel as part of ensuring the safety of the collection at all times. The picture above was taken by Assistant Registrar Ellie Bloom who traveled to the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, Germany to supervise the installation of the painting Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Paolo Veronese for the exhibition Renaissance in Venice: Painting in the Age of Titian. “It might sound glamorous, to go to Germany with a painting, but we’re there to make sure that the object is safe,” Marian shared. In another recent example of a courier trip, a Collections staff member accompanied an object on a nearly non-stop  48 hour drive to San Diego! The courier traveled with contracted fine art shippers to monitor the transportation which took some scheduled stops but no overnight stays. Upon arrival to the museum in San Diego, the courier supervised the off-load of the artwork and met with museum staff to plan for the object condition review and installation.

Conservation: Paintings Need a Little TLC to be Gallery-Ready

The Conservation Department is responsible for the direct care and treatment of objects. The three-member team collaborates in the John F. and Herta Cuneo Conservation Laboratory on a wide variety of tasks, including performing conservation treatments on artworks in the collection; preparing detailed condition reports and treatment proposals; providing recommendations on how objects are to be safely stored, crated, and mounted; and monitoring environmental issues such as light, air pollutants, and pest concerns in galleries and storage areas to ensure the safety of the objects. 

Conservators Varnish Watermelon Regatta Painting at The Ringling

Elizabeth Robson (left) and Chief Conservator Barbara Ramsay applying a new layer of varnish to the recently-cleaned Watermelon Regatta.

Performing conservation treatments on paintings to get them ready for display often takes place months or years in advance of an exhibition opening. “I wish all museum visitors could see the incredibly painstaking techniques and detailed planning behind the finished exhibitions,” says Graduate Conservation Intern Elizabeth Robson. “Paintings and other artworks don’t exist in a vacuum. They age and gather dust over time, even in the most well-controlled museum storage environments.” This means that most paintings need some level of treatment before they are “camera-ready,” so when a curator selects an object for display, the conservation team gets to work!

Holy Family with Saints Anne and Joachim by Nicolás Rodríguez Juarez at THe Ringling

Holy Family with Saints Anne and Joachim (1699) by Nicolás Rodríguez Juarez before undergoing conservation treatment. The section outlined in red on the right side is shown in the detail image below, where the yellowed varnish has been removed from a small area, revealing the original colors of the sky.

Detail of painting undergoing conservation treatment at The Ringling

This work always starts with extensive examination, often using various types of lighting (ultraviolet, visible, and infrared), stabilization of any loose elements, and overall cleaning. This last aspect can range from dusting with a brush, to clearing any dirt with water-based solutions, to removing layers of yellowed varnish. “Solvent mixtures must be tested thoroughly before undertaking a varnish removal treatment, because there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution for every varnished paint surface,” Elizabeth emphasizes. This is due to various properties of the materials used by the artist, which may also have aged and been treated differently than any other artwork, making each one unique. However, wonderful results can usually be obtained by working slowly and carefully. It is especially striking when the original colors of a beautiful blue sky and white clouds are revealed as an extremely yellowed varnish layer is removed, as shown in the image above.


Design and Preparation: Months of Work are behind Your Gallery Experience

Some visitors like to breeze through a museum gallery until one object strikes their fancy, while others spend time contemplating the works in each frame and display case. These visitors, and every type of museum-goer in between, might not know it but they are experiencing galleries that are the result of painstaking planning and implementation by the Design and Preparation Departments.

Design and Preparation is responsible for the design and layout of exhibitions; the fabrication of exhibition walls and furniture, mounts, caseworks, and platforms; moving and installation of objects in galleries and exhibitions; framing and crating objects; and preparing graphics, exhibit labels and didactics panels.

The Ringling’s exhibition designer Joni Bradley works with curators to translate the story of an exhibition into the physical space of the gallery. She works with registrars and conservators to ensure the proper display of objects, like when a climate controlled display case is required for a certain artwork. Then she works with preparators to build display cases or other fabricated elements of the exhibition. Finally, the exhibition is ready to be installed by the “Prep” team.

This time-lapse video shows the reinstallation of Gallery 15, which displays artworks and objects from the French Rococo period. Occasionally the exhibition schedule requires the museum to hire an outside designer, as was the case with Gallery 15. In this video you can see preparators hanging artworks on the walls using lasers as guides to make sure everything is level, and following the design to a T. The time-lapse gives the illusion of work going quickly, but when you consider the curator’s research, object preparation, gallery design, and careful installation, it’s no wonder that the installation of this single gallery took three months to complete!

Find out more about the reinstallation of the permanent collection galleries project.