Collective Conversations with Sarah Gillis

Assistant Registrar, Image Management, at the Worcester Art Museum

The world-renowned Worcester Art Museum, in Worcester, Massachusetts, is home to an encyclopedic collection spanning 5,000 years of art and culture and 38,000 objects including, but not limited to: paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, photography, prints, drawings and contemporary art.

Assistant Registrar Sarah Gillis and her colleagues are currently working towards engaging a more diverse museum audience, as well as making photographic archives more accessible through digitization efforts. For this, they are enlisting the help of new technologies.

We recently had the chance to talk to Sarah and learn more about the work she, and the rest of the department, are working on.

1. What is the biggest challenge your team faces on a daily basis?

Time management amid ever-shifting priorities as our collection is both accessed and assessed by the curators and fellow researchers. Contributing to those time management issues is the need to complete the many smaller tasks which move us towards the larger institutional goal of engaging with more diverse audiences.

2. Technology continues to have a significant impact on museum management and the engagement of audiences. How do you see the use of technology evolving at your institution?

Technology is already evolving within my institution. We have made great strides by putting tablet devices within the galleries to engage audiences and encourage them to linger and interact with the objects further.

In order to facilitate this outreach through mobile technologies, we needed to maintain a single system that manages all collections-related content. That way, users can engage with conservation-related material about a work, or see photographs of the item from a century ago through archival collections. Also, being able to link our records to related objects at other institutions is something we will most likely see in the future. This will broaden the research and discovery scope for all stakeholders of our collection items.

3. What is the one change that you’ve made at your institution that has had the biggest impact?

Prior to my arrival at the institution, the photographic archives were under accessed and in poor housing conditions. I have implemented a cataloguing, archiving and digitization procedure for these surrogates to ensure their sustainability into the future. The result of this work is that more archival images are appearing within the database, and this has aided the research and study of objects. We have items in the collection that have been under our purview for over a century, and the photo-documentation can be just as old. Many of these items have never been on display, so re-discoveries are frequently made by curators. These images are also shared with the public through our online collection search. Visibility of the collection is increasing through these careful digitization projects.

4. If you were given $100,000 to spend on the management of your collection or department, how would you use it?

I would use it to redesign our storage rooms, and install compact storage in all of them!

5. Do you have a favorite book, event or training resource that has helped or motivated you in your career?

A favorite book would have to be Digital Curation: A How-To-Do-It Manual, by Ross Harvey (Neal-Shuman Publishers, Inc., 2010). And for a training resource, the Summer Educational Institute for Visual Resources & Images Management (VRA and ARLIS/NA).

Gareth Salway, our Chief Registrar, recommends the Collections Trust for its vision, standards information and training resources. (

6. What is one of the most interesting projects or exhibitions organized by your institution and why?

Young Mother, Bela L. Pratt

Young Mother, Bela L. Pratt, about 1911, white marble, 39.4 cm (15 ½ in.), Museum Purchase, 1911.24. Digital image courtesy of the Worcester Art Museum.

The Higgins Armory Integration. The Higgins Armory was a local museum in Worcester, which closed in December 2013. Our department had to transfer data from their database to ours, which included more than 2,000 objects of arms and armor and other related ephemera. We also had to coordinate the packing and transfer of the collection to our storage spaces within a span of three months; all in time for an inaugural exhibition featuring highlights of the collection.

This was a time- and labor-intensive project, but was great experience because we had to effectively communicate with colleague registrars at the Higgins, as well as the art packer/shipper company, and with other staff to ensure the safe transfer of the collection.

It’s worth noting that even though the objects were in house as of March 2014, the integration process is still ongoing as we look towards fully integrating the collection interpretively with the rest of the permanent collection.

7. If you were allowed to take home one item from your collection, what would it be and why?

I would take home Bela L. Pratt’s Young Mother. It is such a sweet little piece, with wonderful soft lines and a real intimacy between the mother and her young child. I also really enjoy the photographs that I discovered and digitized to better represent this piece.


About the Author:

Sheena Archer
Sheena Archer is the Director of Marketing at Gallery Systems and has over 10 years of experience in Marketing and Communications for technology companies. Sheena holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and a diploma in graphic design. When she’s not building marketing plans, designing websites or interviewing clients, you can find her growing vegetables, walking the world’s cutest dog or attempting to turn herself into a human yoga pretzel.


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