High Museum working to survey, preserve its vast collection

By Hannah E. Jones

The High Museum of Art’s collection of works is an expansive one, boasting over 19,000 pieces. And the team is currently undertaking a massive project to survey nearly its entire collection — a whopping 17,000-plus objects.

Supported by a six-year grant from The Sara Giles Moore Foundation, the team is working with art conservators to assess its catalog and treat the items needing preservation. For this Conserving the Collection initiative, the High is enlisting teams of conservators, registrars, art handlers and curators who are working together to evaluate and conserve the museum’s collection of works.

The experts are assessing all works that the High added to its collection up until 2020. (Photo courtesy of the High Museum of Art.)

The collection covers a wide range of mediums, including sculptures, furniture, ceramics, paintings, photographs, textiles and more. This is a crucial project for the High’s team to understand the condition of each piece and take measures to slow the art’s aging process. 

For most of the items, this is the first time they’ve been given an official assessment. 

“This is like a really big deal that we’re able to address every object in the collection,” Collections Care Technician Megan Shores said. “We finally have the resources to address the objects and see where they are, in terms of stability, and see what we can do to help preserve them from here on out. We haven’t had the resources to be able to do this — ever.”

She continued: “Having a baseline condition assessment of every object is really important to us. We’re documenting the condition as it is right now so we’ll be able to track how that object ages over time.”

In addition to treatment, the experts will also be looking at best display and storage practices to ensure that the pieces are kept in the best possible condition. For example, works on paper are “some of the most delicate and fragile objects in our collection,” according to Shores. Keeping that in mind, paper displays and photographs are generally limited to the museum’s lower level which has appropriate lighting.

Not only is this initiative good for the art, but it also means that visitors will see pieces that haven’t been on display before. There will also be pop-up displays that describe the conservation process for a specific piece. The team hopes to complete the overall project by next May.

Curatorial Research Associate Kyle Mancuso added that, as a byproduct, this effort is increasing the team’s connection to the works and garnering a greater appreciation.

“From a curatorial point of view, working with conservators brings you back to this creative moment where hands are on paintings and you’re wiping away layers of dirt,” Mancuso said. “It gets you closer to the act of creation and you remember that these are objects that were made with [someone’s] hands.”

To support the High’s efforts to keep their works in the best possible condition, visitors should refrain from touching the art. For example, there’s a painting in the shape of lips that some visitors have kissed, even leaving lipstick stains that had to be removed. Some wear and tear is bound to happen over time, but visitors can do their part to protect the pieces.

Beyond preserving the works, the team hopes that this initiative gives visitors an inside look into what goes on behind the scenes in an art museum.

“I think this is something that’s interesting to visitors and they don’t get to see it a lot,” Mancuso said. “The idea that there are 1000s of other objects that we have in storage can be shocking. We’re offering a peek behind the curtain, and we want to educate people about what we’re doing.”


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