Deeply interested in art and helping A. C. Barnes Company’s employees learn more about art, Albert Coombs Barnes held seminars on workdays to discuss and examine original works of art. He went on to create the Barnes Foundation with his wife, Laura Legget Barnes, in 1922.
Founded as an educational institution dedicated to engaging its visitors with a growing collection of works of art, as well as rare trees, flowers and plants, the Foundation continues to build on Dr. Barnes’ educational legacy in its current home, in Philadelphia.
Gallery Systems spoke with Andrea Čakars, Registrar at the Barnes Foundation. She discusses how the museum streamlines processes, documents and digitizes loans and exhibitions, tracks light exposure, and plans interesting and unusual exhibitions for its visitors.
What is the biggest challenge your team faces on a daily basis?
We have a small Collections staff and an ambitious exhibitions program. There are always multiple permanent collections projects happening as well. As a result, we juggle many tasks at once, so effective and smooth collaboration is a must. We constantly look for ways to streamline our processes to be more efficient at recording and sharing information with our team and other departments, as well as with outside institutions with whom we are collaborating.
How do you see the use of technology evolving at your institution?
We are working toward a more centralized storage of information. We have been using TMS to document loans and exhibitions, but we have also kept a lot of that documentation scanned in network folders, as well as in paper files. We have started keeping absolutely everything linked to the loan or exhibition record in TMS, so that any information someone may need is all there in one place. We are also interested in exploring the use of TMS to track light exposure for light-sensitive collection objects, which we’ve seen done well by the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
The goal is to expose the museum’s treasures and to better communicate them to the audiences, who would in turn add to the BLMJ’s story as well.
Andrea Čakars, Registrar, The Barnes Foundation, 2019
What is the one change that you’ve made at your institution that has had the biggest impact?
I’m very proud of my role in getting our collections management policy (CMP) written and approved. Our institution has a unique and interesting history. Our founder, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, didn’t follow traditional museum practices or procedures, partly because he established the Barnes Foundation as an educational institution rather than a museum. However, in the 21st century, it is best practice for an institution to have a collections management policy.
In 2016, we received approval from our Executive Director and President to apply for help in writing a collections management policy from the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts through the Philadelphia Stewardship Program. With assistance from that program and a group of staff members from our conservation, curatorial, and legal departments, we were able to get a policy written and approved by our Board of Trustees in 2018. Our CMP will be essential to managing our collection now and in perpetuity.
If you were given $100,000 to spend on management of your collection or department, how would you use it?
I would use these funds to invest in state-of-the-art custom storage furniture for our Lending and Study Collection, which includes art and objects that are not on public view, but are used for study and research, as well as for temporary exhibitions at the Barnes and other institutions. The refreshed storage setup I envision would include compact shelving and painting racks. Let’s throw in a photography studio as well! This kind of investment would ensure that these works are both well preserved and easily accessible. I’ve been attending a webinar series through the FAIC on reorganizing storage using ICCROM’s RE-ORG method. Though a lot of their methods are free or inexpensive, I still dream about what my ideal storage would look like.
Do you have a favorite book, event or training resource that has helped or motivated you in your career?
I cannot sing the praises of the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists (ARCS) loudly enough. ARCS was founded in 2012 and holds biannual conferences. The organization and its events are so well tailored to the profession of registration, getting involved with them is like finding a long-lost family. I am excited to be a part of the planning committee for the next conference, which will be held in Philadelphia this November.
I would also be remiss not to mention Museum Registration Methods, now in its fifth edition, edited by Rebecca Buck and Jean Gilmore, two of the ARCS’ founders. This book is the registrar’s bible.
What is one of the most interesting projects or exhibitions organized by your institution and why?
We do interesting well. I’ve mentioned that the Barnes has an unusual history. I really love when we spotlight that history, as we did with our 2015 exhibition Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, Fred Wilson: The Order of Things. The exhibition curator was Dr. Martha Lucy, our current deputy director for research, interpretation and education. She asked the three artists to create their own installations reflecting on Dr. Barnes and his ensembles, which is the term for his unique arrangement of artworks in the collection. Talk about meta!
The new installations were all so different and thought-provoking. We also installed an ensemble by Dr. Barnes—a room called “The Dutch Room”—that had been deinstalled in the 1990s to make space for an elevator. It’s a small room, and we installed it with plexiglass walls so visitors could peer through and see the backs of the furniture and artwork. So, in all, the show was really like four exhibitions in one.
What is your favorite item from your collection and why?
I love the Native American ceramics that Dr. and Mrs. Barnes collected in the Southwest around 1930. To me, they represent a strong female dimension of the collection. They are made from earth by women artisans, and their rounded forms hold sustenance and nourishment. The Zia Pueblo water jar (A374) has such a beautiful shape, lines, and color. And we all know everything looks better with a bird on it! The bird in this case is a roadrunner, and the arches above it represent a rainbow—both are typical decorative elements for Zia Pueblo ceramics.
There are at least 129 objects in the collection featuring birds, including furniture, metalwork, watercolors, and ceramics, so we know that Dr. Barnes definitely appreciated birds as decorative elements.
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