Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.

Sometimes hands-on history projects require gloves. White cotton gloves, to be precise. In June 2012 three curators at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, donned gloves and began the first of an orderly series of planned inventories of the museum’s collections known as the Collections Advancement Project (CAP). By the end of summer three more curators joined the team and the accounting of the Fine Arts Collection was well underway. Over the next four months, the team would need a lot of gloves to safely handle the thousands of paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures entrusted to the museum’s stewardship on behalf of the Commonwealth’s citizens.

Accredited museums throughout the United States undertake periodic collections inventories to ensure proper care and documentation of irreplaceable artifacts. With more than five million objects and artifacts in its charge, The State Museum’s curators – busy answering the public’s questions, undertaking research and preparing exhibitions – require dependable and up-to-date records. Collections managers and registrars are just as busy. Artifacts moved from storage spaces to galleries and back again must be charted. Artifacts are loaned to other institutions, and such transactions must be monitored. The steady stream of donations and purchases entail legal responsibilities, rights and obligations, represented in gift, loan, transfer and reproduction agreements.

An inventory requires more than merely describing and logging the location of a given object. It’s one thing to retain physical control of an artifact, quite another to ensure that the museum maintains its legal, social and ethical obligations to donors and, in the case of The State Museum, to the Commonwealth. (The State Museum, one of 25 historic sites and museums along the Pennsylvania Trails of History®, is administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission [PHMC], the Commonwealth’s official state history agency.) Is the artifact stored in a way to keep it from harm and ensure its longevity? Does it bear the correct number? Is it documented properly in the museum’s accessions records? Satisfying these requirements provides the foundation for what museum professionals call intellectual control – the object’s provenance and historical and cultural significance.

Inventories are opportunities to engage collections anew. They help make collections more accessible to curators, researchers and the public. Made available as digital databases, inventories aid in the creation of exhibitions and publications to further knowledge. With so many artifacts, curators cannot know all the objects and all the stories each object tells, and so inventories are opportunities to revitalize the interpretive possibilities lying dormant in the artifacts – to find those stories.

“The inventory of our Fine Arts Collection and the related detective work represent an important milestone for The State Museum,” says Bradley K. Smith, curatorial administrator. “Yet it is only the first phase of what will ultimately be a multi-year process. We will apply the lessons we have learned as we tackle subsequent inventories, slightly adapting our methodology to meet the unique needs of each collection. We are eager to uncover the mysteries that await discovery and resolution as our project continues. When our work concludes several years from now, the museum will truly realize the full interpretive potential of our vast and significant collections.”

Accounting for the museum’s objects often demands investigative work, and this was no less true for the Fine Arts Collection. The collection itself has experienced many redefinitions, its boundaries changing over the course of the twentieth century. Works of art have arrived in the museum in a variety of ways and with several methods of documentation. Proud Pennsylvanians began donating artworks to the Commonwealth as early as the 1820s, nearly a century before The State Museum of Pennsylvania was created by legislation in 1905. The immediate impetus for the law was the acquisition of an increased number of objects, from natural history specimens to portraits, which had been displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, popularly known as the St. Louis World’s Fair. When Governor Samuel W. Pennypacker signed legislation in 1905 creating the state museum, he endorsed the law’s language that it was created for “the preservation of objects illustrating the flora and fauna of the state, and its mineralogy, geology, archaeology, arts, and history.”

It appears that that order of objects – natural history and archaeology over art and history – held sway for many years. No division devoted solely to artworks existed for many decades, even as the Commonwealth began legally transferring long-held works of art from government offices to the museum (although in the 1940s the museum’s art collection would be tapped to decorate Capitol offices). The Education Division showed children’s artwork along with objects from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1908, but the first art exhibition was mounted in 1928: the paintings of Lloyd Mifflin. The State Museum did not appoint a curator of art until 1956, and the collection did not have a gallery of its own until the museum moved to its current building in 1964. In that year the museum featured a major exhibition, N.C. Wyeth and the Brandywine Tradition, which included the influential Pennsylvania artist’s book illustrations, mural decorations and easel paintings, as well as a model of Wyeth’s studio in Chadds Ford, Delaware County, and works of art by Wyeth’s children. This exhibition is an illustrative example of the inclusiveness of the museum’s Fine Arts Collection. The collection is not restricted to the traditional definition of the fine arts – painting and sculpture – but includes book and magazine illustrations, posters and graphic design, photography and even the work of school children and amateurs.

Added to this complex history of a complicated collection are the changing museum standards and practices throughout the 20th century. PHMC Collections Manager Mary Jane Miller succinctly points out The State Museum possesses 107 years’ worth of collections records documenting more than five million objects and artifacts using at least five different numbering systems. With the number of museum staff members varying widely in the early years – only two individuals were employed in 1926, increasing to 12 before staff was reduced to three during the Great Depression – it’s little wonder that some records are fragmentary and others nonexistent. Many artifacts were added to the collections without documentation. What records do exist are in various formats: faded handwritten lists, well-thumbed paper cards and worksheets (and microfilm of faded handwritten lists and well-thumbed paper cards), paper and electronic spreadsheets and electronic databases. Not a few objects carried different numbers, carefully applied by different hands, which related objects to their records and vice versa.

The curatorial inventory team, led by Smith and Hilary Jebitsch, a collections care consultant, had its work cut out. After several days of intensive training and review in object handling, team members, working mostly in pairs and sometimes with the help of interns and volunteers, methodically documented each work of art, describing its physical characteristics, subject matter and framing or housing, noting numbers and markings and fixing its location in collections storage. Team members assessed condition, recommending in certain instances conservation, in other instances better storage conditions to ensure the artwork’s safety. Unnumbered artworks were given temporary numbers, then photographed, measured and described. The team would investigate these after completion of the initial physical inventory.

It took four months of climbing up and down ladders, carefully removing and rehanging art from racks and walls, emptying and refilling drawers and bins, tracking art on exhibit in the galleries and at the PHMC’s various historic sites and museums and stepping outside to document sculptures displayed on the museum grounds. The team ruined many gloves during the rigorous process, but the inventory results were well worth the effort: 9,584 objects are now recorded in the project’s worksheets.

Of the 9,584 objects, 3,491 objects were unnumbered. Time for the gloves to come off and tackle what the team affectionately called the “mysteries.” Working with Miller and PHMC Registrar Ruthanna M. Kulp, the team began tracing the paper trail, hunting for clues that would lead to reconciliation of an object with its paper record. Sometimes the resolution was as simple as an overlooked number, something a re-inspection of the object confirmed. More often team members could match artwork and its record through written descriptions and photographs kept by PHMC’s Office of Collection Management and the Fine Arts Section’s research files. In some cases, though, deeper research was warranted.

For example, the inventory team found 426 picture frames – painted wood and stained wood, plaster and compo (a mixture of materials such as mortar and plaster), mitered and unmitered, square, rectangular and oval, and gilded, varnished or plain. Past practice in museums throughout the United States and the world was to separate paintings from frames, either for the aesthetic requirements of a specific exhibition or for easier storage. Recent scholarship, however, has emphasized the fact that many artists and patrons had intentionally selected or had created or commissioned frames specifically for artworks. Removing the frame obscures an important part of the original story of the artwork. In addition, frames are now considered works of art in their own right and scholars are devoting their energies to locating frame makers and their hand-crafted productions. To date the team has matched a number of frames to paintings, and has discovered that several beautiful frames were made by well-known Philadelphia craftsmen. Others were found to be constructed for exhibition use and were not part of the Fine Arts Collection. With new scholarship and new information about specific frames, the PHMC Collections Committee will make the final determination about each and every frame.

Other research, based on records and papers held by the Pennsylvania State Archives, revealed the identities of sitters in portraits that had been displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair and in the halls and offices of Pennsylvania’s State Capitol. Through census records and published class lists curators discovered the identities of students who, in the mid-19th century, created pencil drawings as part of their instruction at Linden Hall, founded in 1746, and at Lititz Academy, established in 1815, both in Lititz, Lancaster County. The Linden Hall girls’ drawings of flowers may have served as preparatory sketches for needlework. Among the unnumbered but safely stored artifacts are 21 drawings by artist Violet Oakley whose majestic murals adorn the Governor’s Reception Room and the Senate Chamber in the State Capitol. These treasures will now be cataloged and made accessible for research and exhibition.

The number of mysteries has been whittled to 1,809 and the detective work continues. What the curatorial inventory team has discovered is the true wealth of the museum’s Fine Arts Collection; its representative breadth of Pennsylvania art and artists, both highly accomplished and amateur; the broad range of media and subjects, including breathtaking Pennsylvania landscapes; and the inclusion of materials that graphically depict how Pennsylvanians made, appreciated and preserved art.

And it’s fitting that The State Museum of Pennsylvania’s works of art deserve such white glove service.


About the Collections Advancement Project

The State Museum of Pennsylvania’s Collections Advancement Project (CAP) has evolved into the museum’s most important collections project underway, listed as the top priority in PHMC’s newly approved strategic plan and in a recently completed General Conservation Survey of the Museum’s Collections.

At a recent Commission meeting, PHMC Executive Director James M. Vaughan informed members that “it is difficult to manage a collection until you know what you have and where it is, and the Collections Advancement Project will do just that.”

A formal (and exhaustive) collections audit performed by the Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General in 2010 made specific recommendations for inventorying of the collections, many of which are being instituted by CAP. The Bureau of the State Museum oversees inventories of all PHMC collections both at The State Museum and, with the help of site personnel, for collections at historic sites and museums along the Pennsylvania Trails of History, overseen by PHMC’s Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums. David W. Dunn, director of the bureau, has directed resources from the Keystone Park and Recreation Fund to fill the temporary curator and registrar positions necessary to complete the project. “PHMC’s diverse collections are, indeed, Pennsylvania’s treasures and we have an obligation to manage them according to the highest standards of the museum field,” says Dunn.


Shirley T. Wajda is a member of the curatorial inventory team at The State Museum of Pennsylvania. She holds a Ph.D. in American civilization from the University of Pennsylvania and served as a university professor for many years. Her research specialty is American material and visual culture, particularly of the 19th and early 20th centuries.