This blog is about museum life “Under the Wings,” right?
One of the most important and perhaps most buried “under the wings” duties of the curatorial department is the care of the art collection (housing, safe transport, conservation) including the proper organization of what we have, where it is, who made it, how much it is worth, etc.
As the Museum acquires new objects, we make a new TMS (our database, The Museum System) record that tracks everything from insurance values to the artist’s nationality and birth date. As time progresses, TMS becomes rich with information, but that is entirely dependent on constantly adding new data.
A small thorn in our side was an old record saying “188 glass paperweights” and the location of four high-density storage boxes. And, that’s all it said.
Were these 19th-century French millefiori paperweights? Folk art advertising paperweights? Tourist paperweights from 1950s Venice? We didn’t know.
Enter our Milwaukee paperweight expert.
William Rudolph, the Museum’s Curator of American Art and Decorative Arts, and I came to know Lynn Harper.
Ms. Harper is by day the City of Milwaukee’s lead drawbridge operator, overseeing the raising of the many bridges spanning the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic Rivers. In her off hours, she travels the country and scrolls eBay, collecting glass paperweights and Oriental rugs.
With the offer of a free lunch and the opportunity to discover a box of mystery paperweights, she was generous enough to give the Museum a hand cataloging our collection of 188 ‘weights.
(Like a real insider, I learned to call them ‘weights.)
Together, William, Lynn, and I examined each of the ‘weights. William acted as scribe for Lynn as she looked closely at each one, thumbed through her many reference books, and helped us to identify a specific maker and date for each of the colorful glass works of art.
She taught us how to identify small bits in the glass work that identified a maker—like the unique pink, white, and green rose called the “Clichy rose.” Sometimes the glass carried an exact signature. For instance, look closely at the photograph of the Baccarat paperweight at the top of this post. In the lower right corner of the weight, you see white glass canes with tiny blue letters saying “1847,” and above that, a white cane with a microscopic red glass “B.” This means Baccarat, made in 1847.
Paperweights that gave us that much information were the rarity, however. For the most part, it takes a connoisseur like Ms. Harper to identify certain patterns associated with makers like the French glassmakers Clichy, St. Louis, and Baccarat. Those makers were, in her words, “le creme de la creme.” We also discovered in our collection, rare folk art paperweights advertising insurance companies, or with a folksy greeting of “Home Sweet Home.”
As we carefully but quickly moved through the 188 weights, I was in charge of recording the measurements and taking a photograph of each paperweight. The picture below shows the calipers I used to measure the diameter of each glass orb.
We discovered that we have some wonderful examples of paperweight art in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection. Our region is also home to one of the world’s greatest paperweight collections. Down the road in Chicago, you’ll find over 1,400 paperweights in the Art Institute of Chicago’s famous Arthur Rubloff Collection, which documents all periods, designs, and techniques in paperweight glass. Many of their ‘weights are on view in their museum’s lower level.
Now that we’ve recorded all the information for the 188 ‘weights on the paper cataloging sheets (see below), the next step is the tedious task of entering all of the information into the database.
I’ll be hard pressed to make a fun blog post about that.
Mel Buchanan was the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility includes interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.