Unlocking the collection: Art detectives


The Collection Online project currently underway at QAGOMA aims to digitally capture every work in the Collection, making them as accessible to the public as possible. Many older works, some of which haven’t been displayed in decades, have been retrieved from the depths of storage and given their moment in front of the camera.

When you imagine a conservator at work, you might picture a person wearing a lab coat and gloves, carefully cleaning a sculpture with a cotton swab or using a microscope to adhere a tiny flake of paint. You might picture them in a conservation laboratory, surrounded with scientific equipment and tools of their trade, spending hours preparing a work for its moment in the spotlight. What you might not realise is that along with the skills required to physically repair or prepare a work of art for display, a conservator may also need to be an art detective. Sleuthing through old records and library archives reveals important information about the work and the artist’s intent and by drawing these fragments of information together, both the physical work and its meaning can be restored.

Rhiannon Walker and Bronte Billman (Associate Registrar, Collection Online) searching the QAGOMA Research Library files for information / Photograph: Joe Ruckli © QAGOMA

It’s usually quite easy to determine how two-dimensional works, like paintings, should hang, but when sculptures or assemblages have multiple parts — and sometimes hundreds — it becomes more complicated. Exhibition change-overs can be hectic and it’s sometimes impossible to create and save installation information systematically, particularly when large installations arrive en masse for exhibitions like ‘The Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT), which are displayed across the two gallery buildings. If an artist installs the work themselves, they may not always record how the pieces fit together, or what their requirements are for future reinstallation in different contexts and spaces (what we call ‘iterations’).

In some instances where works have not been installed since the 1980s and 90s — before digital cameras — images of the install process are rare. For example, for one sculptural installation collected in 1982 a handwritten note from the artist instructed installers to ‘unroll the fabric into a whirl’, but for a work made of bamboo and woven wool, and without photos, this was a confusing direction. Another sculpture — Nindityo Adipurnomo’s Introversion (April the twenty-first) — had numerous ‘spare parts’ generously provided by the artist and safely stored — but with insufficient documentation to easily determine what was required for installation and what was not. Without clear instructions or detailed images, works like these have a very real risk of losing their intended physicality and meaning. Curators might also find it challenging to propose them for exhibition because there are too many unknowns.

Installing ‘Introversion (April the twenty-first)’

The Collection Online team install Indonesian artist Nindityo Adipurnomo’s Introversion (April the twenty-first) 1996, after extensive detective work and communication with the artist to clarify the hang of mirrors and curtain components / Photograph: Lee Wilkes © QAGOMA
Nindityo Adipurnomo, Indonesia b.1961 / Introversion (April the twenty-first) 1995-96 / Carved wooden objects, photographs, mirrors, cast resin, found objects, gauze curtain, paper, glass, hair, nylon and fibreglass / 390 x 616cm (diam.) (installed); 21 parts: 75 x 45 x 15cm (each, approx.) / Purchased 1996. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Nindityo Adipurnomo / Photograph: Lee Wilkes © QAGOMA

Watch | Installation time-lapse

Our photographers are capturing every artwork in the QAGOMA Collection, including works so large that a whole gallery space has been transformed into a photographic studio to accommodate them. Watch as we install Nindityo Adipurnomo’s Introversion (April the twenty-first) 1995-96

To solve these unknowns and ensure the digitisation team can accurately record each work of art, the Collection Online conservator and registrar have spent hours in the Gallery’s records and archives, particularly those held in the QAGOMA Research Library, including catalogues, artists’ files and acquisition records. An archive has also been kept of past exhibitions, which has been a useful source of photos, slides and floor plans that have provided valuable information. For works collected in the era before computers and electronic databases, a hand-drawn mud map or a fax from an artist’s studio with a rough diagram might be the piece of information that helps to solve an installation puzzle. When the paper trail ends, the team is fortunate to be able to draw on the corporate memory of current and former staff members, and even artist’s themselves, who have generously given their time to work through a range of installation and technical questions. All this information is now being recorded — historical records are being scanned, discrepancies clarified, mysteries solved and documentation updated.

While the core goal of the Collection Online project is to capture high resolution digital images of all works of art in the Collection, one of the most valuable side benefits has been the review and refinement of technical documentation for the Collection. Collating old files, confirming artists’ intentions, and incorporating this information into the Gallery’s permanent record-keeping systems, not only makes the instructions readily available for the future but also conserves both the tangible and intangible aspects of works of art.

Rhiannon Walker is Associate Conservator, Collection Online, QAGOMA

Artist Judith Wright (centre) assists Natasha Harth and Rhiannon Walker with the layout of shoe lasts in her work Image of absence 1995 / Photograph: Lee Wilkes © QAGOMA