Changing out the display cases along Crystal Bridges’ Great Hall Corridor is an undertaking that is only done once a year. Nevertheless, it is quite a process, as this exhibition area is dedicated to showcasing materials from our sister institutions around the region, and can include a great diversity of objects. This year’s display, Born of Fire, focuses on ceramics on loan from three institutions: The Arkansas Art Center in Little Rock; the Springfield Art Museum, Springfield, MO; and the Sequoyah National Research Center at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock.
Clay is a particularly versatile medium, as this exhibition showcases. Objects range from Japanese porcelain plates to a trompe l’oeil doctor’s bag. The task of installing and displaying these objects falls to Crystal Bridges’ team of preparators.
Preparators are a rare breed: each individual is something of a cross between a high priest/ess and a handyman/woman. They approach each work of art with the sincere reverence of a curator (many are artists themselves or have art or art history backgrounds). They also have, in mixed measures, the patience and precision of a gem cutter, the work ethic of a miner, the math skills of a carpenter, and the eye for layout of a graphic designer. There’s also a little Oompa-loompa in there, as the public rarely sees them, though there would be no museum exhibition without them.
For Born of Fire, preparators worked closely with the exhibition curator, Dr. Manuela Well-Off-Man, in establishing the overall look and feel of each set of cases, and for the general schematic of how the works would be arrayed. Then it’s up to them to make it happen.
They start with design schematics: drawings of each display case with scale sketches of the objects to be displayed. Next they designed and constructed a set of “floating shelves” to hold the objects at different levels for each of the display cases.
Then it was time to begin building mounts to hold the objects in place inside the display cases. Mountmaking is an art and a science all its own. The mounts must hold objects securely without being obvious. As preparator Robert Lemming said, “We have to figure out what’s the least amount we can do that keeps the object safe and stable, but is also reversible.”
Each object is assessed individually for what will be required to secure it in place. Because many of the objects in this exhibition are vessels, preparator Trisha Parker brushed up her sewing skills and sat down at the sewing machine to turn out dozens of little canvas bags and long “snakes” filled with BBs (donated by the Daisy BB Company) that can be put inside the vessels to add weight and stability.
Some mounts required only a few pegs—crafted of brass, coated with felt, and fixed to the display base—to gently hold the vessel in place. Others required custom-crafted “dogs”—brass wire fingers that hold the object in the manner of a gem setting. The completed mount will be securely drilled into the display case’s back wall or base, and will be visible to the museum visitor only as small prongs, painted to be camouflaged against the surface of the object they secure. Most mounts can be built using basic hand tools. A few more elaborate mounts require brazing: joining brass plates and pegs using heated silver solder. Each object may require three or more such hand-shaped dogs.
Born of Fire features 59 ceramic objects, only six of which did not require mounts of one kind or another. The preparators have been working on the exhibition (along with all of their other regular projects), since Thanksgiving. The exhibition—and all its lovely hand-built mounts—opens Saturday, February 1.