This post was written by guest authors Martha Singer, Mette Carlsen, Jakki Godfrey, and Kerith Koss Schrager, a team of contract conservators who carried out Cooper Hewitt’s recent glass rehousing project.
The Product Design and Decorative Arts department at Cooper Hewitt contains over 40,000 objects in all, and has a long history of collecting glass objects, from ancient to modern examples. This post details how new ways to curate have led to different storage solutions for fragile glass objects in the collection.
Cooper Hewitt’s impressive glass collection includes examples of a wide range of historical and contemporary glassmaking technologies. The bulk of the collection is stored in a large offsite facility. After the collection was moved to the new facility in 2008, glass objects sat on foam-lined shelves, organized by country, date, style, and/or method of construction. Curators could see the entire collection at a glance while walking between the rows of shelves in storage. However, as the museum continued to collect more glass, now numbering around 1,900 pieces, the storage shelves became increasingly overcrowded. Objects became harder to see and risk of damage during routine handling increased, as staff looked for and removed objects for research or exhibition. Sometimes several objects needed to be moved out of the way in order to get to the one that was wanted.
Though glass appears a robust, strong material, its brittleness makes it particularly susceptible to damage from accidental dropping or knocking one object into another. Moreover, with objects displayed on open shelving, dust accumulates on surfaces, even with air filtering systems in place. Dust can attract moisture in the air, which on some glass surfaces leaches (or pulls) out minerals in the glass and leads to its deterioration.
Now that the museum has almost the entirety of the collection documented with high-resolution digital photographs, curators can first look at objects’ records in the collection database. The object’s condition, color, size, and other details can be assessed prior to heading to storage, reducing risks from object handling. With generous support from the National Collections Program’s Collections Care and Preservation Fund, Cooper Hewitt contracted four object conservators to improve the storage conditions, reduce risks, and optimize space for the expanding collection.
On a case-by-case basis, glass objects were stored in custom padded archival boxes, or were stabilized on the shelf with a soft sleeve or “snake” (see image below) made of Tyvek® and weighted with plastic or glass pellets to keep them properly supported and stable. Some glass items that came with their own custom box were covered with custom Tyvek ® dust covers. The museum’s registrars, who are in charge of object tracking, give each box and each object (and its component parts) a unique barcode, which makes object movement more efficient and easier to track.
Curators can still find objects quickly and access them easily when they want to see them. Boxing a majority of the objects has created space on shelves and allows for safer access to objects, as well as more room for new works to enter the collection.
Learn how to make weighted “snakes” for your collection by visiting Kate Wight Tyler’s Circular Tyvek Pillows for Art Objects in Storage.