The museum has seven exhibitions opening this fall and winter, from Modern Love: 20th-Century Japanese Erotic Art, the last in a series of three shows focusing on shunga, to A Gift of Photographs from Jane and Marc B. Nathanson, highlighting a recent generous donation of 35 photographs, which goes on view Dec. 4. And every exhibition requires the Collections Department’s meticulous love and care. Part-time collections assistant Jennifer Leung is a recent acquisition of that department, and she has been quick to tackle the protean demands of the museum’s art-rotating world.
She took some time to give us an inside look at what goes on below the surface.
How would you describe your duties?
Basically I work for the Registrar’s Office—where the life cycle of a museum object begins. We all work as a team to catalog, document, house and track the object in its life in the museum. When art moves to a gallery for a rotation or exhibition, we track it and make sure it’s in good shape going on and coming off view. Since I am not here all the time, I tend to come in and pick up wherever I’m needed.
What kind of background and training prepared you for that kind of work?
My graduate studies were in historic preservation. I was assistant to [the director of the historic preservation department at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa] Bill Chapman twice—once in the 1990s and once in the 2000s. I did my master’s in American Studies with a graduate certificate in historic preservation. Since 2012 I have worked for the Mānoa Heritage Center, cataloging and working with their collection in the [Kūali‘i historic] house. So coming here was kind of a way to look at collections in a bigger package, a bit more formalized collections management.
What kinds of skills have you acquired at the museum?
Kind of funny things you wouldn’t expect—like, we were given a little seminar on cleaning and waxing the bronze sculptures by someone from the state, which was awesome. Even things like building specialized boxes to house artwork and handling art, there are always things that I don’t know. Someone will tell me, “You shouldn’t do that!” or “Wear these kinds of gloves.” There’s a wealth of information. We work with the registrars, but we also work really closely with the installation crew and with the curators, going back and forth to get things into the galleries and figure out what needs to be prepared and housed. It’s kind of neat to deal with everyone from that side of the museum.
Is it possible to be an expert at that process or is the job always changing?
I think it always changes—opinions over certain technologies for housing things, and what materials are best always change. There’s always a learning curve, but we’re always sharing information, not just within this department, but with other collections people.
With other museums as well?
We go to the Hawai‘i Museums Association meetings, and when we meet other collections people we say, “Hey, how do you store something like this?” or, “What did you do with your quilts?” You can definitely borrow ideas from other institutions.
Do you apply historic preservation techniques in the process of handling art?
My background is more structural and architectural, but I have always been really interested the building envelope. Because we house the art here, we are all aware of the challenges of a historic building and trying to store artwork inside of it.
I did do some archival preservation at UH too, so that gave me a bit more focus to material culture, rather than just to buildings.
How would you describe your typical day-to-day tasks?
It depends on what comes up. Today the technician Eric [Walden] is out, so I had to clean the outdoor sculptures. Then [collections manager] Celeste Ohta and I went to pick up some art this morning that is being given as a gift. And later, [collections manager] Brady Evans and I may be unframing some photographs to be reframed for the upcoming Recent Acquisitions show. None of that was scheduled! Otherwise, I would be building boxes for the Steinhauser glass works that just came off the display, to house them in the vault. We are between Natural, Unnatural, Supernatural coming down and Recent Acquisitions going up, so we’re all trying to get everything organized.
Is there a time of year when things are more hectic, or is it dependent on the exhibition schedule?
It depends on the timing of the exhibitions, when big ones are going up or coming down, and how many are happening at the same time. We try to divide and conquer a lot—Celeste and Brady and I will all be assigned rotations and exhibitions, but sometimes it has to be collaborative. It’s really teamwork based; everybody has to work together to get the job done.
Is there a particularly challenging kind of show?
They’re all pretty challenging, especially if there are large objects that have to be moved and stored, going in or going out. Textiles rotations in the galleries are definitely more hands-on for me. With framed works the installation team can just frame it, mat it, and hang it, and I just check it off.
What other interests do you have that balance you out?
Well, I have three kids. Usually the two younger ones are home so they keep me busy when I am not working. Other than that, my only strange hobby is refinishing furniture that, quite frequently, I find by the side of the road.
What is the most gratifying aspect of what you do?
My favorite thing about the job —aside from the people I work with—is being able to be around the large percentage of the museum collection that is not on view.