An Adventure through the DMA's Secret Underground Art Storage, Home to 20,000 Treasured Oddities
Remember, what exists above the surface is only 10% of a museum's collection.
Flickr User Paul Lowry
The room we're in looks like a bigger version of a high school art studio. There are sculptures clothed in plastic wrap, rows of Grecian urns, a worktable where staff was assembling mounts for a buffalo mask, a 3D printed lamp and ancient Roman jewelry.
A lot of Jesus paintings are staring at us.
The Dallas Museum of Art has between 23,000 and 24,000 pieces in its collection, which is sizable, but not huge. At any given time 10 percent of those pieces are on display in the museum. The other 90 percent are in art storage, the mostly underground floors of the museum that we're in now.
I admit I was expecting something adventurous and romantic, like the closing scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, with miles of hay-filled crates and maybe some pale Morlocks hauling statuary.
"Hay is actually pretty bad for preservation," Anne Lenhart, a registrar at the DMA tells me. She's been at the museum for nine years working with museum's permanent collection, and this evening she's our Virgil through the innards of the DMA.
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Art storage isn't just a matter of space. Some pieces require specialized preservation and presentation, like charcoal and pastel drawings. A standard Plexiglas frame has too much static for these delicate media and would lift them right off their foundation. Some pieces can't be exposed to light for long. And some were never meant to be displayed: It's normal for a museum to acquire an entire collection just so they can display a single piece in it. The rest goes here, to deep storage.
The collection is overwhelming in an orderly way. In any direction you look in there's something fascinating and bizarre, made odder through its impeccable organization. It's like walking through a library and, instead of books, seeing the subjects of the card catalog on the shelves. Sixteenth century Japanese armor, Dutch paintings of the Last Supper, industrial-sized rolls of Saran wrap.
Most of the paintings in the main art room are hanging on retractable metal walls, which slide out like files from a cabinet. Each drawer is organized by type of painting, so the staff knows where to go to look for certain schools, periods and styles. Some of them are covered in paper or encased in plastic. If you peek behind the corrugated metal you can see the labeling on the frame that identifies the painting. But because both sides are hung it's possible only to see snippets of the labels. "1917," maybe, or simply "Magritte, Rene."
Lenhart pulls out one sliding wall. Among other works, this is home to "Cathedral," a small painting by Jackson Pollock (well, small for Pollock, it's maybe 4 feet tall by 2.5 feet wide) and several covered paintings. She tells us that all together this is probably the most valuable wall in the DMA's storage. As though we're in a sitcom, a man on the tour is flabbergasted and says his daughter could paint something better.
Three statues squatting by themselves on a shelf caught my attention, and I asked if they were Mayan. Technically no, they're fake. The three have been at the museum since the 1970s and have been here in storage most of that time. Our guide didn't know their whole story, just that at some point after the museum acquired them, the three were identified as fakes, probably by a Mayan expert. Since then they've been down here, sitting above rows of severed statue heads.
While it's to be expected that museums will occasionally pick up pieces that are inauthentic, sometimes fortune swings the other way. Lenhart told me that recently the DMA discovered that a mislabeled sculpture on display in the museum was a Rodin cast.
Our next stop is the loading dock and I'm surprised by how chilly the room is. The DMA has a separate loading dock for art, Lenhart explains, and the reason the room is so loud and cool is because of the freezer taking a quarter of it. Any textiles or paper work suffering from mold or insect infestation goes into the freezer, which kills the organisms without using toxins. Freezing is also the preferred technique for dealing with spills and stains, because it allows the staff to clean the liquid bit by bit rather than heating or patting it dry and possibly doing more damage.
Our last stop is the frame-making room, also dubbed "Where Things Come to Die." It's like the Island of Misfit Toys for pieces that the museum can't do anything with. Presiding over the room is a wooden statue that looks like a Spanish Colonial My Size Barbie, draped in clear plastic with a horrifying doll's face and wrist stumps raised in front of it. The thing's detached hands are at its feet.
Even after walking past boxes of scrolls, ceramics painted with Cindy Sherman's face and the canvases of Art Deco circus dancers, that little handless statue lingers with me. I admit, this is what I had in mind when I arrived. Something historical and vaguely demonic, something you can't throw away but should definitely keep locked up. Museum storage is full of valuable, rare, delicate pieces, but it's also full of mundane and off-putting artifacts, things that don't belong on display. Things that justify the work to preserve, because we aren't sure yet whether or not we can afford to lose them.
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