Collections Research Coordinator, Barnes Foundation

The Barnes Foundation is a cultural institution located in Philadelphia, PA, dedicated to the advancement of education and the appreciation of fine arts and horticulture. Alongside stewarding some of the world’s most important impressionist, post-impressionist, and modern paintings — including works by Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso — the Barnes is also committed to racial equity and social justice. They pay special attention to celebrating artists who are Black, Indigenous, people of color, women, and those who did not have access to formal art education in their various exhibitions.

To manage its rich collections, the Barnes Foundation relies on its experienced staff of eMuseum and TMS users. Gallery Systems recently caught up with Robin Craren, Collections Research Coordinator at the Barnes, for a closer look into her work and developments at the institution. She shared insights on what she loves most about her work, the evolving role of technology in museums, and her most valued collections management resources.

Tell us about your career path.

After earning my master’s degree in art history at Temple University, I held several internships at Philadelphia-area institutions while working at the Barnes Foundation in the Visitor Services Department (now Guest and Protection Services). A temporary position opened in the curatorial department which eventually morphed into a permanent role. My role naturally changed over time and I moved to a new Research department in 2018. In the nine years that I have worked at the Barnes, I have researched our collections for any number of projects, tracked the research of our collections, worked on publications and exhibitions, handled rights and reproductions, helped to develop a digital asset management system (DAMS), and any number of other collections-related tasks. It has been a busy and rewarding experience.

What do you enjoy most about your role at the Barnes Foundation?

By far, the close interaction that I get with both the art and the archival collections. I do not take for granted the access that I have been able to enjoy to artwork that is studied by many in textbooks. Having a chance to see, up close, an unframed work of art is very special. I am also a big fan of the versos for their (potential) wealth of knowledge related to their provenance.

What is the biggest challenge your team faces daily?

As I am sure many of us in the non-profit/museum industry know, resources and time are often our biggest challenge. Even for relatively small collections – our gallery collections are composed of just over 4,000 objects, about a 1,000 of which are frames – new information found from research can bring up many questions.

Take the recent publication of our Cézanne collection as an example. A new look at our titles bore the question, should we capitalize the French versions if the French language standard is not to do so? We decided that we should not capitalize beyond the first word (unless it was a proper noun), but this meant we then needed to correct this in any other French titles in the Barnes Foundation’s collections, not a huge task but certainly not a quick fix.

How do you see the use of technology evolving at the Barnes Foundation?

Given that the Barnes Foundation’s collections display does not change, technology plays a big role in contextualizing the artwork and the collections. Through our work with eMuseum and its API, we were able to develop a more robust collections website and, in turn, an in-gallery web application, which helps visitors to see more information about the object or painting in real time in the gallery. Behind this technology is the work of many individuals, including myself, who work to create new interpretive content to help visitors understand our collections within those new systems.

Beyond interpreting the collections, technology has evolved immensely in the past few years in how our Education teams have been able to teach about our collections by offering offering a more robust set of online classes. The Barnes understands and appreciates the impact that technology and digital initiatives can have on reaching wider audiences.

What is a change that you’ve made at the Barnes Foundation that has had a big impact?

I feel very proud of my role in implementing a digital asset management system (DAMS) at the Barnes. I did not take this on alone; I was part of a core team that met with different vendors and set up the system. I now serve as one of three administrators. The Barnes chose a vendor in late 2019 and began training the core team in early 2020 and continued this endeavor virtually, eventually rolling it out to all staff in late 2020 – a rather impressive feat given everything that happened in that year and the strain that 2020 had on our resources. I am proud of how we have garnered institutional buy-in and worked with departments to make the usage of the DAMS a priority for the institution. Eventually the DAMS will be a well-rounded resource for staff to access all media related to both our collections, but also publications, exhibitions, events, programs, and so forth.

How do you think the role of museums will change in the future?

Museums are learning spaces at their core. I hope for the future that access and inclusion will be a driving factor in how they teach and engage with the communities they serve. To stay relevant, museums will need to adapt to change and become more accessible spaces that reach beyond the average tourist or museumgoer and to wider audiences and underserved communities.

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

One of the best experiences I had in my career was attending my first Collective Imagination conference. I learned so much from the individuals that presented, a lot of which helped me to think about our own use of TMS, but I also realized how differently we all use our collections management systems. Because my role has shifted over my tenure and is part data, part research, and part digital asset management, it was nice to interact with people from different roles than my own to gain new perspectives.

What is one of the most interesting projects you’ve worked on?

By far, the work that I did for our Paul Cézanne catalogue. The Barnes Foundation holds the largest collection of paintings by the artist, and until this past year, we did not have very much institutionally written about that body of work. I was able to see the project from its beginning until its end, over a rather elongated five-year period. I performed all the research in our archives for the provenance, compiling that information and the exhibition histories, bibliographies, and so forth into an appendix. I was able to be involved in many aspects of that project, both from a research and data-driven side, but also from a rights and reproductions side, which was a huge learning experience and gave me a deep appreciation for both our founder, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, and Cézanne as an artist.

Workshop of Michael Braun (American, 1772-1851), Cupboard, 1828, painted pine with glass, 79 1/2 x 49 x 21 1/4 in. (201.9 x 124.5 x 54 cm). The Barnes Foundation
Workshop of Michael Braun (American, 1772-1851), Cupboard, 1828, painted pine with glass, 79 1/2 x 49 x 21 1/4 in. (201.9 x 124.5 x 54 cm). Image courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.

If you had to choose a favorite item from the Barnes Foundation’s collection, what would it be and why?

With such diverse and jam-packed collections, it’s hard to choose just one item! Some of my favorite pieces can be found in our collection of Pennsylvania German furniture. One of them, a large cupboard filled with glass objects, helps illustrate why I find Pennsylvania German work so interesting. This particular piece comes from the Mahantango Valley, northwest of Philadelphia, and shows how decorators of these oft-painted furniture borrowed designs from other media, in this case the angels are from Fraktur, a type of manuscript art which Pennsylvania Germans also produced.

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