Sensitive to light, mindful of history: 20 years of storage protects ‘Mining the Store’ works

The 1944 lithograph “Afternoon Train,” is by Doris Lee.
The 1944 lithograph “Afternoon Train,” is by Doris Lee. Photo provided

As one of three summer exhibitions, the Palmer Museum of Art visited its dimly lit archives for pieces from its massive catalog. Running through the last week of August, “Mining the Store” is a display of works from the museum’s permanent collection that literally haven’t seen the light of day in years.

“Because of their sensitivity to light, works on paper rarely, if ever, find their way into permanent display within a museum. They spend the overwhelming majority of their time within a museum collection tucked away in total darkness,” said Patrick McGrady, the museum’s Charles V. Hallman curator. “Prints by well-known artists might be brought out as many as four or five times a year for an hour’s study by members of a university class or by a scholar. After 20 years of pulling out the wrong print from its storage place, marveling at the quality or interesting imagery of an artist I’d never heard of or knew did such a thing, and then forgetting about it almost as soon as it was put away, I thought it was time to stop waiting for the right exhibition to contain one or two of these hidden gems, and create an exhibition rubric that would allow quite a few of these marvelous, yet often disparate, prints out of their Solander boxes for a couple of months.”

Trekking into and exploring these storage rooms can certainly lead to a few forgotten surprises, which is exactly what McGrady and his colleagues came across while preparing this show.

“All of the works selected for the exhibition were in one way or another unexpected when I first encountered them,” McGrady said. “I mean, I doubt very much that many folks are today aware that the sculptor Robert Rohm had experimented with printmaking, or that Dennis Corrigan, not a household name to start with, had issued a series of Cronaflex prints, a process generally known only to mapmakers and engineers in the 1960s and ’70s.”

The inaugural exhibition of what is set to be a series that the museum is hoping to continue showing (“Mining the Store II: American Watercolors and Drawings” is set to be unveiled in the fall of 2015), there isn’t really an overarching motif to the individual pieces on display. Unlike other exhibitions that look only at still life subjects or an artist’s earlier works, “Mining the Store” places its emphasis on how these pieces are maintained when they are out of the public eye.

“Most exhibitions feature a theme or idea that ties together the works they contain,” McGrady said. “ ‘Mining the Store’ is unique and new for the Palmer Museum, in that the only idea that binds these very different works together is the fact that not one of them has been included in a special exhibition at the museum for 20 years in the very least.”

If it weren’t for the exhibit and the museum’s protective storing, the majority of these pieces would disappear forever. A lot of time, effort and patience are put into ensuring that this art is properly preserved and displayed so that future generations are able to gaze at them in all of their wonder.

“We organized a small exhibition a couple of years ago, titled ‘Protecting Paper at the Palmer,’ that demonstrated the kinds of damages that could occur if works on paper were not appropriately protected,” McGrady said. “Too much light will burn the paper. Too much humidity can encourage mold growth. Improper storage can lead to water and insect damage. Above all, this exhibition demonstrated why we store our paper in darkness with appropriate temperature and humidity levels.”

“The museum holds a particularly fine example of Albrecht Dürer’s ‘Lamentation,’ a woodcut from his Large Passion that was likely printed in the waning years of the 15th century,” McGrady added. “Its condition is nearly pristine, and if we continue to employ the levels of protection we have set for our works on paper, we have every reason to believe that five centuries from now, visitors to the Palmer Museum ... will continue to marvel in its presence.”