Karen Whitecotton explains Collection Microcosms And Registrar Work

Greetings again from my studio and blog!
Today I have a wonderful opportunity to include for the first time an interview with an expert in collections and museum inventory experience, who can give some insight into art from an archival perspective- preserving, storing, and making it last lifetimes and beyond, whether it is made by you, given to you, or a piece you have acquired or are considering acquiring for your personal collection. I have been communicating with long-time friend and fellow Oklahoman Karen Whitecotton, independent contract registrar. Karen has more than a decade of museum collections experience, having worked at the world renown National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, and currently working with collections at the Oklahoma History Center. She is also currently the face behind Heritage Museum Services, a company which specializes in collections consultation work.

 **I must also note that the views and statements expressed in this interview/blog post do not necessarily reflect those of the Oklahoma History Center or Oklahoma Museums Association. 
Karen Whitecotton(right) Collections Curator
Nancy Lowe-Clark, ITIN Museum Services(left)
photo courtesy of Oklahoma Museums Association

Thank you so much for your time and information, Karen!

      AC:  At the Oklahoma History Center, I noticed there were a multiple curators, each with slightly different titles.  What type of specialty work is designated for Curators of Collections?
      KW:  The definition of a “curator” varies with each museum.  There really isn’t a standard definition, although curators of collections mostly work hands on with collections to some extent.  In a lot of institutions, curators have a very academic background and do a lot of research and publishing, while registrars or collections managers are in charge of collection maintenance.  It just depends on the museum you work in. The OHC has Curators of Education, Curators of Exhibits, and Curators of Collections.  Each Curator of Collection has an academic background in museum studies or history and each are responsible for specific areas of the museum’s collection.  I work with the general collection, as well as the art collection.  Collections curators acquire collections, accession artifacts (the formal process of making an artifact a permanent part of the collection), carry out inventories, work with artifacts in storage (create mounts, update object records, research, etc.), develop exhibits in conjunction with the exhibit department, help install exhibitions- just a wide variety of things.  Most of us also interact with the local, regional, and national museum communities and actively speak and present at conferences and workshops.

      AC: For artists, individuals, and businesses with a large stash of artwork to maintain, what factors are most important in protecting these financial and sentimental investments?
      KW: Proper care of the artwork is the most important thing, regardless of what type of value is attached to it.  Museum professionals do not look at value the same as the rest of the world- every artifact should be treated with equal care, regardless if it is worth $16million or has no market value- that really doesn’t matter to us.  Museums basically just use value for insurance purposes.  But that's an aside.. 
If artwork is to be used for any purpose, it has to be preserved and cared for based on acceptable best practices and standards.  Stable temperature and humidity levels, rest from light, and a good storage system will go a long way in maintaining an art collection.  Having an inventory- just knowing what you have in your collection- is really important.  If you have an inventory you can physically track the pieces you own or create, have an easy go-to record for all of their information -dimensions, date of creation, condition, etc., and also have a visual image of them; it is easier and safer to layout rooms with printouts of art rather than physically moving pieces around.  Inventories are also good times to make quick visual inspections of the condition of artwork and flag pieces that need further attention later (conservation, reframing, etc.).

Enoch Kelly Haney is a prolific Seminole artist whose pieces, like this one, are collected all over
Oklahoma; he even has a sculpture on the Capitol Dome.
there is a lot of consistency and history in his pieces.
AC: What services do you provide for artists? Businesses?
KW: The services I offer can be tailored to fit a client’s particular collection needs, whether they are an artist or a business.  All my methods are in accordance with the American Alliance of Museum (AAM) Best Practices.  My focus is collections consulting and registration services, which include: instructional training for artifact handling, custom form/worksheet/paperwork development, creating artifact/institution policies & procedures, collections inventories, registration and cataloging, artifact photography (inventory related), collections documentation and numbering, artifact research (provenance research), storage organization and storage mounts, condition reporting, loan coordination, traveling exhibit registration, packing for storage or shipping, couriering, exhibit layout, installation, label writing, disaster preparedness planning.
My services can range from simple, such as providing a custom inventory form, to more in depth, like carrying out a comprehensive inventory for the client.  It just depends on what the need is.

AC: You recently helped me with a piece in my family’s collection- can you explain or expand on “provenance”? 
SHOEmaker serigraph, c.1973, researched and artist info found
through collections services - we could not find this artist as easily with just a web search
KW: Provenance is the background and history of ownership of an object basically from its creation.  Where did it come from, who has purchased it, was it legally purchased, was it imported?  This is especially important to know before acquiring any type of art or artifact.  You want to make sure you have clear title and you never want to acquire something if it might have been illegally obtained somewhere along the line of ownership.  Common examples of this are Nazi-era artifacts that were brought back from Europe; antiquities that may have been looted or illegally exported; archaeological fragments that may have been looted; animal material that may be contraband due to endangered status; Native American grave goods.  Each of those examples are serious and it takes thorough research to know what you already have and to understand what you’re dealing with before you acquire something.  That’s one reason why it’s extremely important to know what you have in your collection by doing inventories and researching your collections.

AC: Do you have any advice you can give to artists in a studio practice?
KW:  Since I’m in the business of caring for and preserving art, not creating it, I would say keeping records of every piece they create will go a long way in helping them in the future.  If they have comprehensive records of their work (images, dimensions, receipts of sales, etc.), they will stay one step ahead with organization.  Organization on some level is key. I would also suggest to volunteer their services in the non-profit world to get their name out there.  Non-profits can be amazing resources and resume builders.
AC: What is the most interesting/your favorite artifact you’ve handled in the scope of your work in collections?
KW: I’ve really seen some amazing things..  if I had to pick just one item… geez… I guess I would have to say maybe the 18th century gilt Buddha statues at the NCWHM.  They belonged to John Wayne, who collected Asian art (most people don’t know that).  Unfortunately they will probably never be exhibited, but they are amazing pieces of art.  Another piece would be the fiberglass Donald Duck puppet on display currently at the OHC for the Oklahoma @ the Movies exhibit.  The puppet was custom made for Clarence Nash, the Oklahoma native & original voice of Donald Duck.  His granddaughter flew in with the puppet and actually animated it and took pictures with some of our staff- he was an ornery little fellow too!  I have the picture of the 3 of us on my desk.  I’ve always been a big Donald Duck fan and that was just a magical experience.  Another fun experience with artifacts was when I went to LA to courier several collections for the same exhibit, and I got to visit a special effects shop and warehouse.  I picked out prop body parts (hearts, burnt bodies, skulls) and plaster castings and all sorts of morbidly fascinating artifacts!  It’s an interesting juxtaposition to see artifacts made for the movies (which are made of short lived materials and made to be cost effective and disposable) trying to be preserved long term in museum collections- it presents some interesting challenges. There are just so many different experiences and stories associated with art and artifacts.  That’s part of what makes them so special.

To contact Karen for more information about organizing studio, personal, or business art inventory or collections, or to get more info on any of her work or services, visit Heritage Museum Services online.  

For volunteer and intern opportunities with Oklahoma's museums, http://www.okmuseums.org/