Registrar, The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art stewards the world’s most complete collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany works—from his award-winning glassworks to jewelry, pottery, and other mediums. These striking creations are permanently displayed in Winter Park, Florida, alongside American pottery, decorative arts, and paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries.
To manage this important collection, the Morse Museum team selected TMS, Gallery Systems’ leading collections management system, in 2019. For a closer look at the Museum’s CMS practices, Gallery Systems reached out to April Brown, Registrar. Part of the team since 2003, April was the ideal person to ask about the evolution of technology at the Morse Museum, along with her personal experiences in contributing to the cataloguing and care of its fascinating collections.
What is the biggest challenge your team faces day to day?
Communication among and between departments is challenging, especially during the pandemic. It may seem counterintuitive—given the 24/7 and immediate nature of technology—but I don’t think we are having as many meetings as normal. However, it’s more likely that some information gets lost when relying on virtual communication. Sitting in the same room as my colleagues is more conducive to obtaining a broader picture of what is occurring in the Morse Museum as a whole.
Living room at Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Laurelton Hall. Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, FL.
How do you see the use of technology evolving at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art?
Technological advancements have not only made my life easier in my role as registrar, but have also made it possible for me to work from home. When the Morse Museum decided to switch to TMS from a different collections database, we also upgraded our servers. Accessing the servers remotely has been just a tremendous improvement. Without that accessibility, I’m not sure what my working life would have looked like over the past year and a half.
The Morse Museum’s approach to photography is another major change I have noticed. Not long before I started in my position, back in 2003, Polaroids were still being used for non-professional object photographs. As for our professional photography, it was all film, mostly 4×5 transparencies.
Now everything is digital. This means I can take as many photographs of each object as I want and import them into TMS. We still have our transparency collection, and occasionally, I need to pull one out to scan it. However, for the most part, all our object photography is now born digital.
What is the one change that you’ve made at your institution that has had the biggest impact?
The biggest change made by the Morse Museum, at least in recent history, is using TMS as our collections management system. During the data conversion process, I went through all our object records to standardize some of the fields, especially the location fields. This effort has made the information more precise.
In addition, multiple departments now input their own information into the database using multiple TMS modules, especially Bibliography, Events, and Exhibitions. Previously, information was only added by the collections department. Now, by having other departments involved in the database, there is more ownership. Everyone, in turn, is a lot more comfortable using the CMS.
Lamps and Lighting gallery. Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, FL.
How do you think museums’ role will change in the future?
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced museums to get creative relatively quickly, developing virtual tours and more programming that is accessible from home. Frankly, I’m in favor of these changes—engaging individuals far and wide. Also, I’m not a fan of flying, so travelling overseas to visit museums is intimidating. Being able to access so much collections information from home is fabulous.
I would love to see more open access to the full collections held by museums, not just tours of the highlights. Not only does this help with preservation—because then you don’t have researchers handling archival collections or objects—but it also gives anyone with an internet connection the ability to view historic documents.
At the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, we have tried to make our most requested and important documents available digitally to scholars. For instance, we have this neat group of ledger books from the Tiffany Studios that the Museum’s Curator and Collection Manager and I transcribed and made searchable. Quite a few researchers have viewed these documents in their digital form, safeguarding the actual documents from overuse.
As the Morse Museum follows this digital trend, it would be great if our entire collection became available online and these sought-after documents were part of the retrievable records.
Do you have a favorite book, event, or training resource that has helped or motivated you in your career?
I love physical copies of books. I like marking up the pages with a highlighter and making notes in the margins. Keeping this in mind, my two favorite books, and the ones I use most often in my job, are the Museum Registration Methods (5th edition) and A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections by Marie C. Malaro and Ildiko Deangelis.
I also love the CSAAM and TMS users LISTSERV® mailing lists. Whenever I post a question, it gets answered so quickly. It is also helpful to search through the previous posts to find answers to random daily questions.
Transom, c. 1910–20, Wisteria, Leaded glass, Tiffany Studios, New York City, 1902–32, 36 x 69 1/4 in. (56-010) Photo by Raymond Martinot. Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, FL.
What is one of the most interesting projects you’ve worked on and why?
My favorite ongoing project is working on our Tiffany Studios Study Photograph Collection. We have a collection of over 3,000 photographs that were used as design inspiration at Tiffany Studios, and it has been gratifying to accession. The collection first arrived at the Morse Museum in 1965 but was not completely accessioned. Some numbers were even duplicated, making this project a multi-year work in progress for our department. I think it is about 90% accessioned by now, and the photographs left are mostly sepia-toned prints of 19th-century German paintings.
The photograph collection is mostly made up of European architectural monuments and details of architectural ornamentation, some Tiffany commissions, and decorative arts. Many of the photographs are by famous historic photographers and their studios, like Francis Frith, Fratelli Alinari, and Félix Bonfils.
The photographs are almost all on thick cardboard mounts, and many of the mounts are marked with a stamp of one of Tiffany’s companies and an alpha-numeric number. As an interesting aside, I found a way to go a step further using TMS to organize these archives much more effectively and efficiently. By renaming just two of the fields we weren’t using, I discovered that we could input this very specific data and be able to search and organize the collection by these numbers.
Green ceramic vase by Tiffany Furnaces. Courtesy of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, FL.
If you had to choose a favorite item from your collection, what would it be and why?
My favorite object in the Morse Museum’s entire collection is this tiny ceramic vase by Tiffany Furnaces, designed and produced in the early 20th century. It is a little less than 5 inches tall. I love the double-gourd shape and the color of the glaze and the delicate almost, pleating effect where the “waist” is cinched in.