West Campus study center brings art gallery’s collections ‘out of darkness’

Shelves of blue and white ceramics
The gallery took an experimental approach to organizing the objects in the glass cabinets, arranging them by medium instead of by curatorial department. This cabinet contains ceramics. Others house wood, metal, plastic, glass objects from across time periods and cultures.

Visitors to the Yale University Art Gallery ponder and enjoy the more than 4,000 works on display, but as is the case at many museums, the objects on view represent a small portion of the gallery’s holdings.

Out of necessity, tens of thousands of art objects are kept in storage. Since 2003, when the gallery underwent renovation, the bulk of its collection has been housed at Yale’s Library Shelving Facility (LSF) in Hamden, Connecticut. Making these objects accessible to scholars, students, or even the museum’s curators has required meticulously packing up precious materials and transporting them to New Haven.

That process is now being streamlined, creating greater opportunities for teaching and scholarship in the collection. The Margaret and Angus Wurtele Study Center, a new open-access storage facility on Yale’s West Campus, will make nearly 37,000 three-dimensional art objects — ceramic dishes, stone statuary, silver candlesticks, glass goblets, etc. — readily available for classes and research.

A curator takes an object off a glass shelf while another looks on.
Only objects that a single person can lift are housed at the study center. All objects can be easily removed from the shelves for study. Here Yale Art Gallery curators Lisa Brody, (left) and Susan B. Matheson demonstrate the cabinets' ease of accessibility.

The gallery has a moral and ethical obligation to make its collections accessible and this space follows that mission,” said John Stuart Gordon, the Benjamin Attmore Hewitt Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts, who led an advisory committee that guided the project. “Most of our collection is not on public view. This is a way of squaring that balance a bit by bringing more objects out of darkness and making them visually and physically accessible.”

Funded by a gift from Margaret and the late C. Angus Wurtele ’56 B.A., the collection study center will host scholars by appointment and Yale classes across disciplines when it opens next semester.

This open storage system is cutting-edge for teaching with objects at a university art museum,” said Issa Lampe, the Bradley Senior Associate Curator for Academic Affairs. “Only a few university art museums in the country are starting to think about collections access in this way, and we are proud to be among them.”

Former pill-sorting facility

The 49,000-square-foot space — roughly the size of a football field — was a pill-sorting facility before Yale acquired the campus from Bayer Pharmaceutical a decade ago. Over the past three years, the gallery has remade the space, installing six classrooms, long rows of compact storage, and banks of museum-quality glass cabinets that display a variety of objects from across the gallery’s collections.

The advisory committee decided to focus the space on three-dimensional objects stored at LSF, thereby returning storage space to the Yale Library. The new facility will minimize the need for intensive art handling. Only objects that a single person can lift will be housed there.

The process of moving objects to West Haven began in July 2014. First, staff inventoried 31,766 objects, updating records and correcting any errors. About 3,000 objects were photographed for the gallery’s digital collection database. The objects arrived at West Campus over the course of 175 carefully packed and unpacked shipments.  

The study center’s floor plan and shelving is designed to maximize visibility and accessibility. The glass cabinets are arranged in open-ended rectangles to form roomy seminar spaces with large tables suited for studying collection material. Low cabinets beside the tables allow for short-term storage of collection material.

Scholars can set items from the cabinets onto the tables and spend an hour or a day or two studying them,” Gordon said.

Storage unit with shelves extended to show objects being stored
Two-thirds of the study center's shelving is composed of compact storage units, which are glass-fronted to make objects easier to locate.

Six classrooms equipped with felt-topped tables and AV-equipment are located along an ocher-colored wall running parallel to the seminar spaces.

The advisory committee took an experimental approach to organizing the objects in the glass cabinets, arranging them by medium instead of by curatorial department — so that, for instance, ceramics from across cultures and geographical locations are displayed alongside each other. 

It’s a fascinating experiment of what happens when you put the world’s creation in front of you by medium,” Gordon said.

Across millennia and continents

 A visitor can stand in one place and compare a pre-Columbian pot with a pot from ancient Crete or another from ancient Japan and find analogies in how the objects are decorated, Gordon said.

These are cultures that we don’t believe ever spoke to each other,” he said. “There is some kind of Jungian universal consciousness in the way we think about decoration and form and function. You see it playing out in this space across millennia and continents. It’s really been energizing for us as scholars.”

About a third of the objects housed at the study center are displayed in the glass cabinets. The remaining two-thirds are housed in compact storage — dozens of units set on tracks that can be moved easily to form aisles. The compact units contain glass-fronted cabinets to make objects easy to find.

The enhanced visibility helps the gallery’s curators better understand their collections, Gordon said.

I’ve been here 11 years and I have never seen my entire collection,” he said. “That’s true of many curators here. Suddenly, we have that ability. We are learning or relearning things.”

A display of jars and bowls from different cultures
Over three years and 175 shipments, more than 31,700 objects were moved from the Library Shelving Facility in Hamden to the study center on West Campus.

He opened an aisle in the compact storage and pointed out a large soup tureen from 1850s New England made of three colors of clay.

This tureen is in our digital database, but the photo doesn’t provide a good sense of its size,” he said. “I came out here and saw it and thought, ‘What is that? It’s huge.’”

The gallery plans eventually to move its Furniture Study to West Campus as well as large-scale objects and paintings not on view.

The collection study center enables visual teaching and learning in a manner impossible in the gallery’s traditional classrooms, Lampe said.

Let’s say John wants to lead a class on American silver, but he wants to show students objects in an entirely different collection for comparison with other traditions of metalworking. He can walk them through this space and show them all kinds of things,” she said.

The facility’s close proximity to the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) — Yale’s world-class art conservation studio and research laboratories — and to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History’s storage facility provides opportunities for collaboration and innovative teaching, Lampe said.

Three of the collection study center’s six classrooms are accessible from an exterior hallway, which facilitates their use by IPCH and the Peabody.

The proximity to Yale’s state-of-the-art conservation lab and such a large percentage of the collection enables teaching about material science and conservation science to university students, which is an increasingly important field of study,” she said. “This space will make that kind of teaching happen like magic.”

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