What art is hiding in the dark at Whitman College?
The answer is a wide range – from prints autographed by Salvador Dalí, to an entire collection of Filipino swords, to leather baby shoes worn by triplets in the 19th century.
“What can be seen on display is a relatively small portion of what’s hiding in the dark,” said Nina Lerman, associate professor of history and director of the Maxey Museum. “The online collection will let people find out what’s in there.”
Four years ago, the college embarked on a process to inventory, appraise and catalog items. The resulting databases for Sheehan Gallery and Maxey Museum will be accessible online and serve as research tools for students, faculty, community members and anyone else in the world with Internet access.
Sheehan Gallery’s database will include 1,000 works of art, and each entry will have a photo along with information on the artist, the piece’s provenance and its location on campus. Maxey Museum’s database will include more than 2,000 artifacts, from stone tools to plastic toys.
Last summer, two appraisers and a conservator traveled to Whitman to lend their expertise. Nan Chisholm, who worked at Sotheby’s for 20 years and who can be seen regularly on the “Antiques Road Show,” appraised and evaluated Whitman’s canvas and print collection.
“She was like a ‘CSI’ detective,” Exhibitions and Collections Manager Kynde Kiefel said. “She linked things with our paintings that no one else would have ever known.”
Sheehan Gallery Director Dawn Forbes ’93 said, “One of our goals, in addition to the improvement of accessibility and the appraisals, is showing proper stewardship for things we have. Donations are a huge part of our collection. We need to take care of the work in the way it should be maintained.”
Donations come in many forms. “Sometimes gifts are left on the doorstep,” Kiefel said. “There’s a level of random donation where people just want to leave a part of their legacy through their objects.”
The 3,400 or so artifacts in Maxey Museum, which is largely composed of donated items, range from “things as large as a parlor organ to items as small as a Roman coin,” Lerman said.
The museum, which is student-curated, also has a large collection of Native American artifacts. Along with providing online access to the collection, the cataloging process also helps the museum comply with the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act. NAGPRA requires that human remains, funerary objects and sacred objects be returned to tribes.
“Archaeology used to involve digging up grave sites and putting what you find into museums,” Lerman said. “Today, that’s more classifiable as grave-robbing, and and we’re working to establish both legal and ethical criteria for maintaining our collections.”
The cataloging project was made possible by a donation from Megan Salzman Medica ’81 and her husband, John K. Medica.
To browse through the holdings of Sheehan Gallery, Maxey Museum, and the Whitman College and Northwest Archives:
Student interns have performed the bulk of the cataloging work, Forbes said, “It’s been a tremendous experience to see how their enthusiasm and understanding has blossomed.”
Along with many donations from alumni and community members, the college has built its collection through the Gaiser Endowment, which funds art purchases. Much of that art comes from shows at the gallery or from students’ thesis work.