A Postcard from Detroit

Unrolling and condition assessment of the full scale cartoons that Diego Rivera made while he was planning the Detroit Industry Murals.

This Letter from the Field was shared with us by Marisa Szpytman, MSP12.

Even before I officially began my MSP internship in the Registrar Department of the Detroit Institute of Arts, I knew this was going to be an interesting summer. About a week before my internship, Detroit’s financial manager, Kevyn Orr, declared that due to Detroit’s imminent bankruptcy, the city would have to begin taking account of the city’s assets, including the holdings of the museums in the city. One of the hot topics this summer became whether or not the City of Detroit has the legal right and ability to actually sell off the art in the DIA, a debate which is, unfortunately, continuing as Detroit navigates through the bankruptcy situation. Even while the museum continues to deal with this issue, there were many interesting projects going on that I was fortunate to experience.

The Registrar Department at any large art museum engages in a wide variety of collections related activities. At the DIA, four registrars handle the paperwork associated with gifts, acquisitions and deaccessions, condition reporting on art works, overseeing crate packing for shipments, coordinating art arrivals and installations for exhibitions (both traveling and in-house), processing loans with other museums and private lenders, and administering the collections database, The Museum System (TMS). I worked mainly with the registrar in charge of database administration, since an upgrade to the latest version of TMS has been in preparation for nearly a year, and the project is in the final stages of completion. I was involved with updating the TMS staff user manual. Part of the project involved a lot of desk work, as I researched how the text entry field standards changed within the DIA over the years, and consulted with other institutions about their standards for certain descriptive text fields. I set up meetings with the registrars and curators to consult with them about which text entry fields needed to be completely changed, slightly modified, or remain the same. In particular, I worked closely with Associate Registrar Terry Segal on setting up and facilitating these meetings with members of the curatorial department.

The second project I worked on also involved TMS, in particular using an updated version of the Exhibitions Module to keep track of art objects that are being used in special exhibitions, whether they come from the DIA’s own collections or are on loan from other institutions. The main issue I dealt with was what type of numbering system should be used for loan objects, and whether we wanted to assign individual numbers, independent of current accession or loan numbers, or if we were going to create completely unique numbers for each exhibition. In order to thoroughly explore this issue, I consulted many other museums, and held several meetings in the Registrar Department to go through possible situations where one numbering system or another would be most beneficial.

In July I was able to go with Terry Segal to the Association of Midwest Museums Conference in Madison, WI. The focus of the conference was on creating and maintaining local and community centered museums, but there were also many interesting sessions on utilizing technology in galleries, developing donor and volunteer programs, and best utilizing different database functions for a variety of museum needs. We went specifically to get more information on standardizing collections definitions and text entry fields in collections databases. We also visited many interesting museums and gardens in Madison.

Terry and I in front of the Thai Pavilion at the Olbrich Botanical Garden.

Terry and I in front of the Thai Pavilion at the Olbrich Botanical Garden.

Me in front of the capitol building in Madison, just a few blocks from the conference hotel.

Me in front of the capitol building in Madison, just a few blocks from the conference hotel.

One of the biggest projects at the DIA this summer which I was fortunate enough to observe, was the unrolling and condition assessment of the full scale cartoons that Diego Rivera made while he was planning the Detroit Industry Murals. The last time the mural cartoons had been unrolled was the 1970s, and they were due for a condition assessment.

While I only observed this project, getting to see the Rivera cartoons in person was easily the highlight of my summer at the DIA. If you ever are in Detroit, I would highly recommend coming to see Rivera’s murals!

Bye for now,
Marisa Szpytman
MSP12

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