Digging Deeper: True Stories from the Permanent Collection
June 18-August 16, 2016
When people learn I work at a museum, people often say “Wow, that must be fun!” And it often is! One of the most rewarding parts of the job is the detective work that we get to do when researching objects in the museum’s collection. Part of the curatorial responsibility of the museum is to research to the best of our ability each object’s provenance or its historical record of ownership. While tracing the ownership of a particular work of art over centuries can be very interesting in itself, provenance can also provide other clues about the past, such as changes in the social and economic influences that impacted art purchasing and collecting priorities. The journey a work of art makes after its creation can tell one much about the time in which it exists and the succession of people who own it.
Ideally, each work of art in a museum’s collection would have a complete record of each owner and method of transfer (such as auction or inheritance) from the time that the artist created it until the present day. However, there are often gaps in the provenance record, and these gaps create opportunities for continued research by museum staff.
Provenance research isn’t the only type of research undertaken in museums. Other topics researched may include the subject(s) of or for a particular work of art; research on the techniques, tools or media used by an artist on a certain piece or a body of work; research on the attribution of a specific work; or even the authenticity of a work of art.
Television shows such as Antiques Road Show and History Detectives and movies like The Da Vinci Code and The Mummy may glamorize the work a bit, but trust me, the stories in the filing cabinets are often just as interesting as the paintings themselves!
–Amanda Dyer, Curator