Organized Chaos

UIMA Graduate Curatorial Assistant Nathan Popp joins us on Art Matters today to share some of his reflections on the flood and his work with the UIMA's collection of prints, drawings, and photographs.
Those who know me understand how much I crave order.

Since water besieged the UIMA and so many others last summer, I have struggled to cope with the ongoing uncertainty of the Museum’s situation. Looking back, however, I can see that certain advance actions we took helped facilitate an efficient evacuation of our works on paper collection (prints, drawings, and photographs).

Prior to the deluge, my supervisor, UIMA Chief Curator Kathy Edwards, had given me the task of systematically going through the Museum’s art object database to identify objects that needed research and to gather the missing information. Our goal had been to have as much of the collection as possible available on the University of Iowa’s Digital Library, so that students, faculty and the public could browse the collection online.

The digitization does not provide a virtual substitution for the Museum, but rather allows people access to many works of art not typically on display in the galleries, and to let them explore the true depth of the fine collection here at Iowa. The digital image database has and will provide people a way to discover unique objects from the collection, and then make an appointment to come into the Museum and see what peaked their interest.

The flood has limited such opportunities for student and faculty use of the collection and thrust the staff into a whirlwind of organized chaos this past year. Several office moves, continuous construction, and other hurdles have tested the morale of those who work at the museum--and all of those affected by the flood.But through it all the charge remained: stay steadfast, work toward an objective bigger than ourselves.

When the semi-trucks began to return the University of Iowa Museum of Art’s collection back to native soil at its new temporary home at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport (read more on the UIMA/Figge agreement here and http://uima.blogspot.com/2009/01/move-in-news.html and see photos here), I was awestruck by the amount of work that needed to be done. Row after row of boxes and crates formed a mountainous labyrinth, each a package that had been saved from the flood.
As noted in UIMA Assistant to the Director for Special Programs and Curatorial Assistant Melissa Hueting’s blog series “From the Figge Front,” our group documented every object with condition reports and added each item to an inventory as it was relocated to its new storage place. It had been nearly a year since I had laid eyes on most of the works on paper, and it felt good to know they would soon again be under my care.

Although it took months to finish, day by day we pressed on until the job was done. For works on paper, each box was taken from its pallet and placed onto a large table, where we went through the contents page by page, ensuring that everything was accounted for and in good condition. Once certain that all was well, we moved the box onto a cart destined for an area in the Figge’s library. There, the books had been moved to make room for new shelves where the works on paper boxes can be secure in a proper climate.As each box-laden cart voyaged toward its next destination, I walked alongside, my outstretched hand resting atop the stack. I knew that the cart was steered properly and in no danger of accident from shifting, but something inside me felt I needed to protect the UIMA’s works on paper. Maybe it is because I started as a student security guard in 2004 and came to art history by way of my reverence to the art I was charged to protect. Or perhaps it is because I believe passionately that this collection should be shared and protected for future generations.

What I do know is that as one entrusted with the care of collection, it reassures me to keep a steady hand on those containers. It calms me to gently slide them into the protected slot where they will repose until the next class or exhibit calls them into service. I scan every list, count each shelf, calculate the best arrangement.
After a tumultuous year, the new order here restores my sense of duty and inspires me not only to resume past projects, but also to press on toward new plans—The UIMA@the Figge and the UIMA@the IMU: Richey Ballroom, to name two. These two spaces allow the UIMA to continue fulfilling its educational mission as best it can, but they do not negate Iowa’s need for a museum to provide a home for its art collection.

All Iowans are the inheritors of this magnificent assembly of art, but with reward comes responsibility, and our sights must be set on what we bequest to future generations. A shiver trickles down my spine as I drive along Dubuque Street and witness the Iowa River swell with rain water again. I think to myself how nature is unmanageable, unpredictable. The phrase etched above the doorway of the old art building puts my plight into perspective: Ars longa, vita brevis. Art is long, life is short.

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