Historical Highlights: Into the FWMoA Vault

Sue Slick, Collection Information Specialist

‘Museum professionals agree that adequate space for “behind the scenes” activities is critical to a functional building and their recommendations should be considered carefully.’

Vincent Melzac, The Weatherhead Report, Being the Survey of the Condition and an Assessment of the Needs of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, 1976 

It’s time to go behind-the-scenes and into the vault! Just like all those movies that take place in museums, we have our own exciting tales at FWMoA. Visitors are always curious about what goes on behind those big “barn doors” at the end of our hallway and how museums, in general, store and preserve our visual history.

Much of the behind-the-scenes work of museums is organizing and cataloguing objects. This must be done to allow the magic to happen at the front of house! Storage and organizing, whether sock drawers, spice racks, or art, isn’t the most glamorous topic; but, when done right, it can be life-changing. Though not as exciting as museum dinosaurs coming to life at night and roaming the halls, it ensures that our visitors get the best experience with our collection! 

Most of our blog posts are about art, art processes, art people, and museum practices, but not too many cover the actual physical museum space and what goes on “behind-the-scenes”. So hold on to your hats, we’re going to rummage around in the nuts and bolts of museum collection storage! 

You wouldn’t know it from walking around our galleries, but for the last couple of years, we’ve worked very hard on enlarging and improving our art storage. We’ve invested in some elegant (to us!) new flat files and shelving and have revamped our ordering of things. It helps our collection and the streamlining of our processes for growth. It’s all good; just ask Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections and Archives, our resident storage genius who has worked on solutions for our ever-expanding collection!  

This is especially important right now as our glass collection has grown dramatically. Glass, though not as sensitive to light, temperature, and humidity as are works on paper and other delicate materials, is often heavy, fragile, and prone to chipping. We’ve had to rethink and redesign our 3D storage for these sparkly new additions. 

A gallery view of an exhibition currently on display, new acquisitions in glass at FWMoA.
Some new glass acquisitions on display in the FWMoA exhibition, “A Love of Light: The Fendel/Rosenbach Collection”, July 24, 2021 – October 3, 2021. Picture courtesy of FWMoA. 

There’s a lot that goes into storing art and artifacts. Museum collection storage is a whole ‘nother’ world of museum management, and today is overseen by the American Association of Museums (AAM). This is the realm of registrars, conservators, and curators who do the critical work of logging, inspecting, preparing, conserving, studying, and organizing the collection objects when they are not on exhibit. These are tasks the curatorial staff does every day at the FWMoA as part of our normal museum operation. 

It’s well understood that museums are focused on preventing theft, so collections storage has to be secure — that’s pretty obvious, but it also has to be the correct temperature and humidity for the contents to be protected from environmental degradation. Consistent temperature and humidity must be maintained and regulated, and that data is recorded by an instrument like the hygrothermograph, pictured below, that plots the temp/humidity data continuously. Fluctuations in temperature and humidity can cause multitudes of material problems, so capturing this history is critical to understanding the environmental conditions of the space and ensuring preventative measures are taken. As a contemporary art museum, we aren’t participating in restoration as much as other museums with historic collections; instead, we’re focused on preventing the need for restoration in the future by following best practices today.

A young girl looks at a hygrothermograph, the machines found in museums and galleries that track fluctuation in temperature and humidity.
A young museum visitor checks out a hygrothermograph. FWMoA archive image. 

Lighting is also a critical element in art and artifact storage. All spectra of light can damage materials, and this kind of damage is cumulative. Many works of art, especially those on paper, are best stored in the dark, and they must rest there in between their forays out into the world of light! (If you’ve visited FWMoA recently, you may have noticed that the galleries exhibiting Alphonse Mucha: Master of Art Nouveau are darker then the others. This is because those works on paper are fragile and susceptible to burning; we even covered the skylights to ensure their protection! Didn’t make it to FWMoA during Mucha? The Print & Drawing Study Center is always dark, again to ensure the safety of the works on paper housed and exhibited there, and you can talk to Curator of Prints and Drawings Sachi Yanari-Rizzo about our preventative measures.).  

The construction and materials of the storage facility must also be carefully selected — those that are not acidic, abrasive, or that can snag or invite condensation. For example, our delicate old Amish quilts are gently rolled and wrapped in tissue paper and placed on a special quilt rack to keep them safe when they are not on display. 

Ideally, art storage spaces allow room to pack/unpack, photograph, label, and tag the objects, and also to safely move them. Art storage has to be accessible to allow safe removal and installation of objects from being on display to moving back to storage. A curator should not have to move other objects when accessing any object, and objects behind others may mean the curator excludes them from an exhibition.  

Collection storage records are important, too. Like library books that have call numbers, our objects have identification numbers and a sort of address system that allows us to find them and put them away correctly after exhibitions. This is some of the information that is recorded in the collection database, along with provenance, descriptions, and all the information you find on an object label. 

Our visitors may be surprised to learn that museum professionals also have to think about bugs and other pests. Critters, molds, and fungi — all those interesting life forms can wreak all kinds of havoc on art and artifacts!  Rest assured, these are not problems at FWMoA! Our biggest storage problem is actually lack of it. As you know from reading our posts, our collection is growing quickly and we need more room!  And the type of room we need must be carefully designed and built for all of the reasons listed.  

Now you know some of the secrets of our vault and the preventative measures that go into caring for contemporary art! 

Speaking of vaults, did you know that back in the olden days of the museum’s era on West Wayne Street in the former Mossman home, there was no vault to speak of for storage of the collection? The museum had to make use of every inch of space in the building, including the attic and the basement — not ideal environments for art storage!  

We know from reading the museum’s historic board minutes that the physical constraints and demands of the school and museum buildings were numerous, ongoing, and costly. If it wasn’t the elderly boiler in the main building, it was the fire escape that gave way while a staff member was standing on it; if not that, it was the leaking roof of the museum! Yes, that’s right — the roof over the attic where art was stored leaked. There were also, occasionally, raccoons in the attic . . . maybe these furry visitors enjoyed looking at the paintings! 

Past Museum Director Theodore Fitzwater looks at works stored in the attic of the museum at its original location on West Wayne Street.
Museum Director, Theodore Fitzwater, peruses the collection stored in the attic of the museum on West Wayne Street. Image courtesy of The Fort Wayne News Sentinel, roto, January 28, 1961. 

When the attic and basement were filled to capacity, the museum rented additional storage. The location was kept to a “need to know” basis for the sake of security, but the Weatherhead Report mentions much of the collection being stored in the vault of a downtown real estate office! 

The 1906 Mossman home was a wonderful and transformational gift to the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum in 1949. It was the step that gave the museum portion of the dual institution its own address; but a new site intentionally built to be a museum had been a pipe dream for years, and as Vincent Melzac pointed out in the Weatherhead Report in 1976, the “gracious and imposing” Mossman residence had not been “originally designed to function as a museum — the limitations of the structure have become increasingly obvious and finally critical”.   

A photograph from 1980 show a FWMoA Curator looking at paintings in storage.
Former FWMoA Curator, Joseph Ketner examines art in the museum’s off-site collection storage, circa 1980. FWMoA archive image. 

Not only did this lack of storage put the collection at risk of damage, but it limited the museum’s access to traveling exhibitions because of its inability to safely store borrowed artwork.  And it, naturally, limited the growth of the collection. The Weatherhead Report recommended a freeze on purchases of new work until a new facility was built, the only new accessions were to be in the form of gifts. Even then, adequate art storage was maxed out. 

The museum’s leaders had discussed storage problems for decades, even going back to the 1950s when the museum had been in the Mossman home only a few years! Storage and workspace were strenuously discussed and rehashed when Louis Kahn was designing the new arts campus in the 1960s and 70s; though the complete Kahn campus was never realized, the Weatherhead Report set us on the path for a new building.

The major finding of the study was that the museum needed a new building, not continued modifications of the facility it already occupied or a costly remodeling of an existing building. The solution had to be a new building built to function as a museum. 

“The next most pressing need is a new facility. Without it, Fort Wayne cannot have the exhibitions it needs to attract the audiences it wants to reach. Without it, you cannot hope for increased membership or to broaden the financial support from the community. Without it, the permanent collection will continue to deteriorate; its inaccessibility will continue to be a source of frustration to the professional staff and the rental fee to house it downtown will be a continued source of irritation to the Finance Committee.”

Vincent Melzac, The Weatherhead Report, 1976 

The new building, dedicated in April 1984, was 39,000 square feet with an environmentally controlled art storage space and adequate room for viewing, processing, and studying all media. At last, the museum had a real vault with racks for paintings, flat files for prints and drawings, and cabinets dedicated to 3-D storage! 

A photograph of the side of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art from 1983, before the outdoor sculptures were in place.
The newly built Fort Wayne Museum of Art, 1983. FWMoA Archive image. 

But, after happily growing for twenty more years, by the early 2000s, the museum was outgrowing its space again. The November 2005 report by Wolf, Keens & Co., Facility Expansion for the Fort Wayne Museum of Art stated, “There is strong interest in increasing the Museum’s gallery space. However, additional exhibition space must be accompanied by appropriate gallery and collection support and staging spaces.” The American Art Initiative was launched to raise funds to expand both the collection and the physical space, including galleries and storage. 

As we celebrate our 100th Anniversary this year, we look forward to seeing what the next 100 years of collecting will bring to FWMoA and our storage spaces, as well as to our galleries and visitors.

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