Art Work: J-Term Museum Interns at MHC

Posted: February 7, 2007

It's a scene that would make Martha Stewart smile: Armed with a hot glue gun and reams of white polyester foam and acid-free tissue paper, Kanchan Burathoki '09 is sitting on the floor of a gallery in the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum making cones and other shapes out of foam to fill the spaces around delicate, life-sized paper clown suits that are being prepared for shipment. The clown suits are among 50 or so works of art from the museum's recent exhibition of Jane Hammond's two- and three-dimensional works created out of paper.

Sarah Collins and Emily WoodBurathoki and her fellow January Term museum interns Sarah Collins '07 and Emily Wood '09 (left) have spent the month working behind the scenes at the museum. Their primary work has been packing up the Hammond exhibition, which originated at the Mount Holyoke museum and will travel to six more sites. While Burathoki finished making her foam packing cones, Wood and Collins peeled lettering from a painted white signboard with razor blades, a slow and painstaking task. Three of the museum's galleries have been closed for several weeks while the Hammond exhibition comes down and the upcoming Egyptian exhibition, scheduled to open February 17, is mounted. The galleries where the interns are working look more like part of a warehouse than an art museum. They are surrounded by huge wooden crates shaped like armoires, pedestals, Plexiglas display cases, tool kits, moving dollies, ladders, and lamps.

As the interns have discovered, packing works of art is a laborious, multistep process. "It definitely gives you a different way of looking at art when you pack it for shipping," Wood said. One of their jobs has been to write condition reports, carefully inspecting each object for signs of damage or aging. "It takes a while because of the nature of Hammond's work," she continued. "Some of the pieces are deliberately crumpled, torn, or partially unglued. We notate everything just to be sure." Once inspected, the objects are wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and put into packing boxes. On the lid of each box is a color photograph of the work and a series of additional photographs showing how the piece is to be unpacked and unwrapped, wrapped and repacked. Nothing is left to chance. "This show will go to many more places," Burathoki explained. "So it's important that everyone knows how to handle each piece."

While much of the interns' work has been in packing up the Hammond exhibition, they have also helped prepare the gallery space for the Egyptian exhibition. They spent long hours painting the many new display pedestals a uniform charcoal gray, and moving objects (wearing clean white gloves, of course) out of gallery space that will soon be filled with Egyptian artifacts. A highlight for Wood was moving an Andy Warhol painting. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I got to touch a Warhol.' " The students have also done some cataloguing, both at the art museum and at Skinner Museum. "We didn't want them just doing physical work--painting and packing," said Linda Best, collections manager at the museum, who works closely with the interns. Collins, an ancient studies major, has been cataloguing the museum's collection of ancient coins. "Working with ancient coinage is literally 'touching' history," she said. "Being able to interpret them, much like an average ancient person, is an amazing and insightful experience."

In addition to showing the interns how to perform specific tasks, Best has met with them several times to talk about different types of exhibitions and how they are chosen, and other matters such as insurance and contracts. "The group has been very helpful," Best said. "We're a small staff and everyone pitches in. We don't ask them to do anything we're not willing to do ourselves."

Working in the art museum can be a transforming experience for students. "They get to work with original objects and see all aspects of museum operations," said Bettina Bergmann, Helene Phillips Herzig '49 Professor of Art. "It's very different from the classroom. They feel professional. They put into practice what they've learned. It's an exciting place. There's always a lot of adrenaline pumping." Best agreed. "We want to give them the experience of seeing an exhibition come to life. I think they come away thinking, 'I had no idea what went into making these exhibitions come to fruition.' "

Related Link:

MHC Art Museum

MHC Art Museum to Host Egyptian Exhibition