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Museum Registrar Safeguards Valuable Masterpieces

How does a priceless oversized Renaissance painting get from its home museum in Florence to a Boston exhibit at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum? Working out the shipping arrangements for such a delicate masterpieces requires a careful timeline and detailed installation logistics, according to Amanda Prugh Venezia, a Isabella Stewart Gardner registrar. As gatekeeper and guardian of the museum’s collection, she worries about risk all the time, from the size of a transporting freight elevator to the amount of insurance needed to protect against vandalism and theft. “You know those ‘Worst Case Scenario’ books? That is how my brain works,”said Prugh Venezia, who needs to take copious records at every stage, cataloguing and processing every object. Art registrars like Prugh Venezia work behind-the-scenes with curators and other museum professionals. “It’s like going to a ballet or a great musical and not knowing the lighting, set design, costuming, and production that went into it. That’s like my job,” said Prugh Venezia, who spoke with Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene about her role as registrar at the Gardner.

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“Museum registrars are stalwart overseers in the art world, but it’s a very mystifying title for most outsiders. When I once worked at a university museum, we would sometimes get misdirected phone calls from students thinking we were the school registrars. When I came here to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum almost nine years ago, the archivist or curator was working in the capacity of a registrar. Then museum decided to make a commitment to creating this position. Working for the Gardner is particularly unique as founder Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will strictly stipulates how the art should be hung and only three major pieces of artwork a year can be loaned, but not from the same gallery. It’s a tricky balance. Since the new Renzo Piano wing, there is opportunity for more and larger shows so I am busier than ever as the museum expands its exhibition schedule. In any given week, I am working with hundreds of different pieces of art, talking with conservators about how to care for them; working out what pieces we will loan or borrow; and dealing with transportation issues. In the absence of having a lawyer at the museum, registrars are the closest thing to dealing with hard and fast legal issues, an aspect that I find very rewarding. I have to be vigilant about the care, lighting, and handling of each artwork, and many lenders have specific and conflicting requirements to balance and problem-solve. Recently, when I had to oversee the loan agreements for nearly 50 works of art loaned by 16 museums, including works by Michelangelo, Cellini, and Donatello, the pressure was like hosting 25 Beyonces in the museum. For one masterpiece, a fragile terra-cotta sculpture, I couldn’t even sleep at night and had nightmares about something going wrong. I didn’t breath until it was back home in Florence. Even at home, I am insufferable when we need to just move just a simple piece of furniture. I always say, ‘Wait, stop – you need to handle it in this way.”

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