The Milwaukee Art Museum, like many other large museums, has so much art that it is impossible to display it all at once; there is just not enough space in the galleries.
Instead, the museum often rotates their installations, allowing the largest amount of objects to be displayed—just at different times. This also lets the curators to explore many different narratives using the permanent collection.
One such rotating installation is the display of portrait miniatures. Located in the gallery that contains most of the eighteenth-century European material, the portrait miniatures make a fascinating case study on just how the Milwaukee Art Museum goes about rotating artwork.
A great museum installation begins with an interesting idea or question. Some possible themes that curators might want to highlight include: a collection of artworks from a specific donor; key examples of art from a particular movement or time period; or a collection of aesthetically similar or dissimilar items.
Sometimes, though, installations from the permanent collection come from happenstance. The portrait miniatures are one such example.
About eight years ago, while searching the museum’s collection database for objects made of ivory for a completely different reason, Catherine Sawinski, assistant curator of earlier European art, discovered about 40 paintings that were on ivory. She was intrigued with these portrait miniatures—a type of artwork that she had not known about before—and she decided to research them.
She eventually organized a special exhibition featuring both the Milwaukee Art Museum’s miniatures and those from Milwaukee collections. The exhibition, entitled Intimate Images of Love and Loss: Portrait Miniatures, ran from July 8–October 10, 2010.
The exhibition went so well that when the galleries were completely reinstalled in 2015, Catherine and Tanya Paul, curator of European art, decided to make sure that portrait miniatures were part of the display.
The interest of the public and the curators was bolstered by the fact that only some art museums were showing portrait miniatures in their galleries. When deciding what to exhibit, museums often consider what types of art similar institutions are displaying. Innovative museums like the Milwaukee Art Museum want to offer visitors a unique experience, and by highlighting genres that can’t be seen elsewhere, they are able to do that.
There is a problem with displaying portrait miniatures. They are made by using watercolor paints on ivory, and therefore they are light sensitive. If they are left on view too long, the image fades.
The solution was to create a rotation installation of portrait miniatures, putting only a few miniatures in the gallery at once, for about four months at a time. This not only protects the artwork, it also keeps the display interesting for returning visitors and allows most of the miniature collection to be seen.
The miniatures were separated into groups, some based on gender of the sitter, some based on who the artists was, some based on the artist’s nationality. By grouping the portraits and showing them on rotation, the museum was able to create multiple narratives for visitors to consider.
Because the Milwaukee Art Museum has such a large collection (over 30,000 objects), it can only show a small part of it at a time (about 2,500 objects). It makes sense, therefore, that the museum has a lot of storage spaces.
When not on view in the gallery, the portrait miniatures are kept in special areas designated for storage. Storage is overseen by museum staff known as registrars. Registrars, an important part of the museum community, handle the documentation and care of all of the objects. They are also part of the team that gets to decide what objects will be displayed or loaned out, as they have records that tell if the object will be able to survive the handling without damage.
The portrait miniatures are stored in a wooden box with packing material around it in order to protect them and their frames from damage.
The miniatures are kept as a group in order to save space and keep the collections organized.
The Milwaukee Art Museum has an in-house team that designs and builds storage boxes. Because a lot of art in the collection has a unique shape, being able to individually tailor the box to the object helps to prevent damage.
Just because a museum has an object in storage, it doesn’t mean that it is ready to be shown to the public. Some of the art in storage needs conservation.
This could means that the object needs to be cleaned, or sometimes it means the object was damaged and needs to be repaired. Even the frames may need to be cleaned or fixed.
This type of treatment can range from gently dusting objects, to removing and replacing varnish on paintings, to patching rips in the canvas, to steam-cleaning marble sculptures.
Repairing art and making it ready for display is a very specialized job that can take some time. Modern conservators know that if they add new paint to a piece, or fix the canvas, they need to make sure that the repairs won’t damage the piece further and can be reversed if necessary.
The Milwaukee Art Museum employs a conservation staff which handles a lot of the repairs and cleaning on site. But for more extensive or specialized repairs, the museum employs outside conservators.
For the 2010 portrait miniature exhibition, the Museum brought in portrait miniature conservation specialist Carol Aiken (see photo at right). She was able to take a few of the miniatures apart in order to clean them thoroughly, making them ready to display both in the exhibition and in a rotation.
A lot of work and creativity goes into the gallery displays at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
For the portrait miniatures in particular, the team usually meets twice: once about six to eight weeks before the miniatures are installed, and then again during the installation process.
Those who are usually at these meetings are: the gallery designer, a registrar, the mount maker, a conservator, some art preparators (those that actually install the artwork), and a curator.
In the first meeting, the portrait miniatures for the next rotation are brought out and the new display is discussed. Every detail of the display needs to be considered. Are the objects in stable condition? Is there any treatment necessary to complete before display? At what heights and angles will the miniatures be displayed? Are there old mounts that can be reused or modified? Or will a new mount have to be made?
The team considers a lot of factors when deciding exactly how the portrait miniatures will be displayed in the gallery. The grouping must look cohesive and visually appealing. It also needs to be understandable to visitors. Finding the perfect balance between the two can be tricky. Often the miniatures need to be adjusted by fractions of an inch before they look perfect. Having a creative team working on gallery display is vital to any installation.
The installation of a new portrait miniature rotation often happens before the museum opens, because the gallery space needs to be closed to the public to keep the area safe for people and objects.
Most of the same people that attended the display meeting are at the installation as well. This helps in case it is necessary to troubleshoot problems with the original vision.
The art preparators lift off the acrylic bonnet of the display case and take out the pieces from the rotation that is ending. Those miniatures go immediately into a storage box under the watchful eye of the registrar.
The old mounts and case deck (the board at the bottom of the display area) are then taken out and replaced. New mounts are installed through a new case desk by drilling holes for the rods, and then the new portrait miniatures are secured to the appropriate mount.
The curators and installation team then make final adjustments, sometimes switching the portraits around or changing the angle that the object is displayed. It can take a couple of tries before they decide on the perfect arrangement.
Installations can be made more complicated because portrait miniatures are three-dimensional—they have cases and reverses that might have interesting details. In that case, the team will try various displays in order to show both sides.
When the installation looks perfect, the acrylic bonnet is replaced.
The final step is putting object labels on the wall. The museum uses adhesive vinyl for object labels. Sometimes, when a display case is freestanding, the object labels are put inside. The labels are written by curators and printed by an outside contractor.
At last! The installation is finally ready to show the public.
Art has the amazing ability to bring people together and think critically. Art museums are a social space that allows visitors to not only reflect but also share their ideas with others.
This community begins behind-the-scenes at the art museum, where a team of visionary and diligent professionals work together to create innovative installations.
–Kelsey Rozema, Curatorial Intern