Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Museum's Collection: What Lies Below the Surface?

By: Doug Kendall, Curator of Collections
Did you know that the art and artifacts you see on exhibition represent just the tip of the iceberg of the Fenimore Art Museum’s collections? As I write this post, the Museum has over 900 objects from its own collections on exhibit out of a total of about 23,000. Many exhibitions, such as America's Rome: Artists in the Eternal City, 1800-1900 feature works loaned by other museums and collectors, so there are many more works of art on exhibition this summer. But about 96% of the Museum’s collections are not in the Museum’s galleries right now. This proportion is common among many art and history museums.

Why such a small proportion on exhibit? The Museum and its parent, the New York State Historical Association, have been collecting since 1899. To properly exhibit the entire collection would require a museum building many times the size of the Fenimore Art Museum—which was originally built as a 46-room mansion! Further, many of the objects in the collection are too fragile to be exhibited for long periods of time: textiles, paper and some paintings are particularly susceptible to damage from even relatively low light levels.
Some of the Museum’s objects are on loan to other museums, such as the magnificent portrait of the Revolutionary War general Baron von Steuben painted by Ralph Earl, which can be seen at Mount Vernon from now until January 10, 2010. Others, like the Apache saddlebag, are being prepared for exhibitions organized by our curators that will soon travel to museums around the country. Many are exhibited in the historic buildings of our sister institution, The Farmers’ Museum.

But most of the Museum’s collections are stored and preserved so that curators, researchers, students and the public will be able to access them for years to come. You can see some of these collections on the Museum’s website—check out the Thaw Collection or highlights of the Fine and Folk Art Collections.
As Curator of Collections, I document and care for all of the collections so that they are available to future generations—and so they are ready to be exhibited at the Museum when it’s their turn. In addition, students in the Cooperstown Graduate Program study the collections as part of their training in Museum Studies. The collections may also be seen by appointment and the Collections staff makes that possible. From time to time, I’ll be sharing some of the unique and fascinating objects that aren’t on exhibition through this blog.
Top: Major-General Baron Frederick William August von Steuben,1786 by Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0198.1961. Photography: Richard Walker.
Bottom: Saddlebag, Apache, ca. 1880. Gift of Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw, T0764. Photography: Richard Walker.

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