Thoughts on Missing Art at the BPL

On May 20th, 2015, the Boston Public Library reported that it was missing two of its most valuable pieces: an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, and a Rembrandt etching. If you have been keeping up with the story, then you know that as of today (June 4, 2015), both artworks were found in the library’s archives, 80 feet from where they were supposed to be filed.

Originally, I had planned on writing a longer piece, trying to explain why it was possible for these two very valuable pieces to be missing within the collection. Since I’ve only started to get my feet wet in the museum world, though, I have no real expertise on the matter, so I’ll hold back – for the most part. I had planned to defend the Boston Public Library because I assumed the comments on articles written by the Boston Globe and WBUR would have many people up in arms about “how could the BPL lose objects?!”. While I didn’t comb through every article’s comments with a fine-toothed comb, the comments that I did read were not as harsh as I expected. In fact, they were much more critical of the way Mayor Walsh handled the situation than anything else (a thing I will stay silent on).

What happened at the Boston Public Library is not good. It sucks. (It also sucks that President Amy Ryan is still leaving, resigning only a day before the artworks were found.) But it’s also a very real problem in most cultural heritage organizations. Organizations that have existed for over 100 years have gone through reorg after reorg, and have had to constantly keep up with ever-changing standards and ways of doing things in order to stay on top of ever-expanding collections. This is not an easy feat when your entire sector is drastically underfunded. It means relying on underpaid, overworked staff. It means relying on unpaid interns. It means relying on volunteers. The public is outraged when situations arise like the one at the BPL, expecting us to have all of our objects organized and filed to perfection. The truth is, they aren’t. With tens of thousands of objects, how could they be?

And so I say this, to you, to anyone who will listen: Cultural heritage organizations need better funding and public support. How can you help make that happen? Email your Senators. Email your Congressmen and Congresswomen. Email your mayors, your governors – heck, email President Obama. Let them know you support the arts and culture. Let them know you want to increase funding for these institutions, so situations like this will become less of an occurrence in the future. With better public support, more organizations can embark on digitization and inventory projects, and can build a foundation to help them survive the next 100 years.

Click HERE to access the American Alliance of Museums’ Take Action page, to email your legislators about issues surrounding the cultural heritage sector.

Thoughts on Missing Art at the BPL

Collections Storage Tour at the Peabody Museum

Last Wednesday evening I had the opportunity to visit the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology‘s collections storage space as part of my class on collections management. It was such a great experience! We were split in to two groups, one led by the collections manager (also our professor) and the other led by one of the curatorial/conservation assistants. The first place my group went was the offsite storage facility, which I believe houses the majority of the PMAE’s collection. It was incredible. Three stories full of objects from all over the world, all within arms reach. At one point we were even allowed to hold an Acheulean flint axe head. This object was made by homo erectus, our ancestors, and is somewhere between 500,000 and 900,000 years old. UM, WHAT? The oldest thing I have ever held in my entire life. It was a little ridiculous.

After the offsite storage we were brought up into the attic by the curatorial assistant, who showed us the different methods he and his co-conservators use for rehousing and storing objects in the collection. I know this employee from working at the desk at the Peabody occasionally, so it was really cool to be able to see him in his element, instead of in the front hallway. Plus, he recognized me! I (half-joking) asked if I could come hang out with him when I was on my break sometime, and his response? “Give me a few days heads up and you can come check storage out all the time!” My jaw dropped. For real? Ok, great! I also learned from the collections manager that the Semitic Museum is always looking for collections volunteers – BANGARANG. As much as I love the Waterworks Museum, I need to have experience with another collection under my belt, and the Semitic Museum’s archaeological collection would be a perfect new addition.

Tonight we’re going to be discussing repatration, specifically related to NAGPRA and the NMAI Act, which I’m becoming more and more interested in. It’s certainly a global discussion at the moment as more and more countries are requesting (sometimes demanding) that artifacts be returned to their rightful owners instead of remaining in the museums that acquired them centuries ago. Maybe I’ll post about it.

Cheers!

Collections Storage Tour at the Peabody Museum