The life of a registrar

PEM is well-known, and rightly so, for the innovate and dynamic exhibitions it presents in Salem. From Strandbeests to priceless porcelain to contemporary immersive sculpture, PEM is committed to transforming people’s lives through cultural experience. The less visible part of our mission is the care of 1.8 million objects — many of them dating from the earliest days of the institution. It is the work of a special museum professional called a registrar, specifically a collection registrar like myself, to keep track of all those things.

As assistant registrar for the collection, one of my biggest responsibilities is the management of outgoing loans. Both the size and diversity of PEM’s collection mean that other institutions really want to borrow our stuff. Where else are you going to find a fan decorated with tiny pieces of paper covered with colored bird feathers? (Almost nowhere, actually, since the fan, which dates from the 17th century, might be one of only two known to still exist in the entire world). The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston needed it for the exhibition Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia. Or how about a pair of Japanese nimaiba geta (courtesan’s clogs)? Those went to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and will be on view here in Salem when a version of the exhibition, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, opens in November 2016.

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Fan, 17th century Feather, paint, gilding, tortoise shell Mexico 7 1/4 x 13 1/4 inches (18.415 x 33.655 cm) Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of Mrs. Albert J. Beveridge, 1947.

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Fan detail

It is not, however, an easy decision to lend. Exactly because these objects are rare and precious, we have to be particularly careful about sending them out on loan. Despite the quaint notion of an object “resting” in dark, climate-controlled storage, all damage is cumulative and irreversible. By allowing another institution to display a PEM object, we are essentially allowing someone else to have a portion of its useful life. It is not without careful consideration, deliberation and often negotiation that our curators, conservators and director approve a loan request.

Nor is it logistically simple to get an object ready for exhibition, packaged securely and delivered and installed safely. We depend on conservators and mount-makers and fine art shippers and customs brokers and riggers and preparators to handle priceless pieces of culture with care. I recently sent our Alexander McQueen gown to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT for the exhibition Gothic to Goth: Romantic Era Fashion & Its Legacy. Not only was the dress expertly packaged by a textile conservator but it was also installed by that same conservator who repackaged it for its return.

I’m currently preparing to send a small stone idol to Hawaii and being challenged by its size and density. Not fragile in the traditional sense, the idol will break if dropped from a height so I need a crate large enough to dissuade anyone from stacking it in the cargo hold of the airplane, which means an internal box and layers of padding designed by a fine art shipper. Then there is the 67-inch Japanese screen scheduled for display in Sacramento that needs a specially-designed mount that would keep it safe in an earthquake.

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Yata Torakichi (Japan, California and San Francisco, 1857–1913) Screen, 1885
Wood, silk, paint. Japan, California, San Francisco. 66 3/4 x 74 inches (169.5 x 188 cm). Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of Mrs. Paul T. Haskell, 1981.

Despite the risks, outgoing loans allow us to share unique and interesting objects with the world. We’ve loaned to Japan and the United Kingdom and Canada. Man by Maqbool Fida Husain will go to the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany in October. Two paintings by Bhupen Khakhar are in London at the Tate Modern and will travel to Berlin later this year. And we are sending our tiny boxwood rosary bead to the Art Gallery of Ontario and on to the Cloisters in New York. One of our earliest accessions — presented to the East India Marine Society in 1806 — the rosary bead will join other superlative examples of its kind in an exhibition dedicated entirely to this type of art.

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Heaven and the Day of Judgement. Boxwood. 4 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches (10.795 x 5.715 cm). Peabody Essex Museum, Gift of Elias Hasket Derby, 1806.

 I am admittedly biased, but I think loaning objects is one of the most important things we do. Not only are we being good global citizens by sharing our things (further proof that the lessons of kindergarten are lifelong), but we are also participating in the creation of knowledge. Our objects are enlivened by new contexts in juxtaposition to other objects, generously loaned by institutions like ourselves. What will go where next? Stay tuned.

One Comment

  1. What a fantastic essay illuminating the challenging fun of being a museum registrar! Inspiring.

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