As part of my MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies, I undertook a work placement earlier this year at Manchester Art Gallery. I worked on documenting works on paper as part of the gallery’s Access Project, which aims to increase the amount and accuracy of information available about its collections. I picked up from where last year’s placement student had left off, and found myself working for the entire placement period with a set of prints produced in the early twentieth century by an organisation called the Vasari Society. These are reproductions of, primarily, Old Master drawings that had been mainly held in private collections. Their reproduction and distribution by the Vasari Society enabled a wider public to come into contact with rare drawings by the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo that they would otherwise likely never see.
Part of my reason for choosing this placement was to gain experience with using collections management software. Manchester Art Gallery uses a system called KE EMu, and the prints already had basic electronic records on this database. There were numerous errors in these, however; a Rembrandt spelt as ‘Rembrant’ would effectively render the print lost in the system, and so a keen eye for detail was necessary as I was updating the records. I used observation and writing skills to write descriptions for each work, and also transcribed descriptions that had been written for the Vasari Society and were included in a booklet with each set of prints. There is a big difference between the two writing styles. For my own writing I described the content of each work to give a hopefully lively, but entirely accurate and impartial overview that would enable its identification. The descriptions by art historians for the Vasari Society are, by contrast, highly subjective, often gushing about particular artists and jumping to conclusions about their intentions. These did, though, provide useful information about the works, as well as being interesting examples of art historical practice at that time. I also photographed each print and uploaded the images to the database. The updated records are now available both to internal staff and to the general public on the Manchester City Galleries website.
During my placement I reflected on the role that these prints play in the life of Manchester Art Gallery. They had originally been acquired in the 1920s and 1930s for the Rutherston Loan Scheme, which lent items to schools and colleges in the North to bring students into regular contact with works of art. This scheme was wound up in the 1970s, and my research and anecdotal evidence suggest that the Vasari Society’s prints have not been utilised in many years. The fact that they are not original artworks might make them less desirable as exhibition objects, but they are high quality and in great condition, and could provide a useful educational resource, as well as providing an insight into original drawings that are still not in the public domain. Hopefully increasing the visibility of these prints through better documentation will be the first step towards them becoming a useful part of the collection again.