A Day in the Life: Exhibitions Preparator

Whenever I am asked by someone “what my position is” at the museum, I hesitate briefly before saying “I’m the Exhibitions Preparator” because I know that there is a good chance that I’ll be met with a look of slight confusion (even as I type this, spell-check is second-guessing whether that is actually a word.) The next question I’m usually asked is, “ And what does that mean?” And the truth is, even for someone who is familiar with the term, that can be a difficult question to answer.

In many museums, the title Preparator can denote a fairly specific set of responsibilities: it can mean “mount maker” or it can mean “art handler/installer” and little more. For me, and as is often the case in smaller museums, the title carries a much broader definition. At the Kemper, we have three temporary galleries that change their exhibitions three times each year, to coincide with the semester changes at the university. At a minimum, each of these changes requires the de-installation and packing of the existing exhibition, the deconstruction of walls followed by the reconstruction of walls, and of course, the unpacking, arranging, and installation of the new artworks. And very basically, that is what I do. Or rather, that is what I ensure gets done, as I  certainly do not do it alone. Aside from me , the Kemper has one other full-time art preparator as well as several part-time assistants, students, and temporary freelance contractors who specialize in this kind of work.

Upper left and right photos: Installation of artwork for the exhibition Cosima von Bonin: Character Appropriation. Photo by Kemper Art Museum. Bottom photo: Installation of artwork for the exhibition Cosima von Bonin: Character Appropriation.  Photo by Whitney Curtis.

The team installs artwork for the exhibition Cosima von Bonin: Character Appropriation in Summer 2011. (Upper left and right photos by Kemper Art Museum. Bottom photo by Whitney Curtis.)

On any given installation, outside of this basic set, my responsibilities can also include designing and constructing casework and other exhibition furniture, fabricating specialized mounting systems for atypical artworks, laying out and/or overseeing production of signage and other graphic elements of the exhibitions, determining, installing and troubleshooting technical needs for audio/visual and mixed media installations…there really is no end to the variety of situations that can pop-up during an installation.

Of course just as much of the work that goes into our exhibitions takes place months before we even enter the gallery spaces. It is during this time that I work with many of the other departments of the museum: Registrars, Curatorial, Publications, and Security , as well as coordinating with architects, engineers, fabricators, and any number of other specialized professionals, depending on the particular requirements of each installation.

As much as the job requires making carefully thought out preparations in terms of specific needs for scheduling, staffing, materials, etc., more often than not, it means being mentally prepared for when all of that careful planning runs into an unexpected development and resolving those situations without incident. This can be equally important outside of our installation schedule when special projects with the permanent collection are planned.

“Can you install a sculpture outside constructed of 2 intersecting backyard storage sheds?”  Yeah, we can do that.

“Can you install a sculpture outside constructed of 2 intersecting backyard storage sheds?” Yeah, we can do that.

 “Can you take an 8’ x 22’ painting and hang it 25’ off the ground…over a stairwell?”   Yeah, we can certainly do that. Let me just get our scaffolding…

“Can you take an 8’ x 22’ painting and hang it 25’ off the ground…over a stairwell?” Yeah, we can certainly do that. Let me just get our scaffolding…

It’s no exaggeration to say that there is no such thing as a normal day, in fact, that is part of what keeps me enthusiastic about the work that we do. Honestly, though it might get somewhat hectic at times, it can be exciting to know that each day can bring with it some pretty interesting surprises. Hopefully, some of that excitement translates into the experience our visitors have in the galleries.

By Ron Weaver (June 7, 2013)

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