Museum steps up exhibit preparation

A visiting consultant conservator is undertaking a meticulous audit of the National Museum’s 8,000 artefacts.

Conservator Mary Peever is also assisting in identifying items to be placed on exhibition in January and helping to ensure they are in top condition.

The audit is an aspect of finalising post-hurricane recovery even as the institution moves into high gear in preparing exhibits for the grand opening in January 2009.

A related priority now, says Ms. Peever, is to identify all artefacts according to material, to facilitate quick and easy retrieval. ‘We should be able to put our fingers on anything we need at any time,’ she says.

These efforts follow the museum’s rapid deployment of its collections and exhibit materials from the damaged Museum Harbour Drive complex post-hurricane, and various ongoing initiatives to return them to their pre-hurricane state.

In spite of the fact that Ivan was the worse hurricane to hit the Cayman Islands in the prior three quarters of a century, the museum lost few pieces in the hurricane, due mainly to an excellent disaster-preparation and -recovery plan. And the plan was rehearsed diligently every year, Ms. Peever says. ‘Because of that, they were able to save a lot of the collection,’ but many precious pieces had suffered damage and needed various levels of treatment.

Ms Peever, a Canadian conservator, who had previously served at the museum and who also did some post-disaster curatorial work at Pedro St. James and the Cayman Islands National Cultural Foundation, returned on short-term assignment to the museum after the hurricane. By that time, in December 2004, museum staff had already undertaken a categorisation of artefacts based on levels of damage and had commenced cleaning in line with the museum’s recovery plan.

Ms. Peever joined the effort and produced a report with recommendations, and when the museum was ready for the next phase, she returned to work on pieces requiring further treatment.

On the second visit, the work continued: ‘Museum staff and I worked long hours daily doing basic stabilisation,’ she said. ‘Some, however, required specialised treatment.’ In those cases, Ms. Peever tenderly hand carried them to Toronto.

Some, a few of which are already back at the museum, were among some of the most precious pieces in the museum’s art collection, such as the oil paintings by American Robert Farlow depicting early Caymanian ships and crews at work.

These are wonderful works of art, Ms Peever said, reminiscent of some of the old Masters. It would have been a severe setback to Caymanian cultural heritage to have lost them.

Some 18 of those most severely damaged pieces are due back shortly, with custom-made matting for local museum-supervised reframing.

Meanwhile, she is juggling the tasks of working with all involved as the museum prepares exhibitions to be unveiled in January 2009.

This includes assisting the now Acting Director Debra Barnes-Tabora (then the Deputy Director in charge of the curatorial programme) with pre-installation work to ensure that mounting and levels of lighting and relative humidity for the exhibition are absolutely right.

‘The whole effort right now is to ensure to institute as much preventive strategies as possible so in the future we can avoid as much as possible having to take corrective measures,’ barring, of course, any catastrophic events, she explains.

At this pivotal time for the museum, sometimes her approach involves corrective, preventive and authentication actions at once. To these ends, while a museum team prepares the boat in the ‘Old Seaman’ diorama – or 3D model – for exhibition, she is examining all the items that will go into the boat.

‘It is very important that everything is presented absolutely correctly,’ she says, saying that the Caymanian audience will detect anything that is not authentic. She must also ensure, she says, that all are in as good condition as if they were in use in real life.

And her passion is evident. ‘I really love the collection,’ she says, adding: ‘It is a pleasure to assist the staff of the museum, who are the custodians of the heritage of future Caymanians. We are all diligently safeguarding the collection with the aim that in 100 or 200 years time they are as in good condition as they are now.’

Photo captions:Peever 2: Conservator Mary Peever admires a Museum acquisition by Robert Farlow, in league, she says, with work of the Old Masters.