Archive Angels: Friends volunteer to organize DeVos museum collection

Volunteer archivists Marilyn Keefe, left, and Diane Kordich open an archival box that houses Native American items from the DeVos Art Museum’s permanent collection. (Journal photos by Corey Kelly)

MARQUETTE– Every Tuesday Diane Kordich and Marilyn Keefe go behind gallery walls and into the DeVos Art Museum collections room where the pair has been organizing the museum’s permanent collection for the last decade. Referred to by staff as the “Archive Angels,” the two women have been volunteering their time since 2007 to properly sort, store, classify and record each one of the 2,000 pieces in the collection.

With a background in art, Keefe, an NMU art department graduate, and Kordich, a retired art department professor, made the two retired friends perfect for the extremely detailed task of handling delicate art objects. Kordich had even donated her inventory of her Native American quill-baskets to the museum years ago.

“America is made up of many different cultures and they all had something special to contribute,” Kordich said. “The Native American collection and the Japanese collection are awe-inspiring when you realize these artists made all these things by hand with a lot of attention and a lot of heart.”

After a piece is donated and before it can be displayed, the pair have to carefully label it.

“It all starts on a table in a pile,” Kordich explained.

This is a completed section of the items organized by Keefe and Kordich in the museum’s collections room at Northern Michigan University. (Journal photos by Corey Kelly)

She went on to describe the process of how each piece is cleaned and an artist’s name and identification is added to the item. Then the Angels use acid-free archive boxes and materials to house the piece when it is not on display. The pair often custom fit the box to hold multiple items so they can be stored efficiently and safely.

“Every object has a unique number that tells you about the object. There will be a set of numbers to signify where the collection came from and what year and the order the item was donated,” explained DeVos Museum Director and Curator Emily Lanctot. “All museums use these systems as a way to make sure that every object has a unique number assigned to it so that there aren’t multiple objects with the same number, therefore, rendering them meaningless.”

The Angels photograph each item, label each box by listing each item’s identification number and putting it’s image on multiple sides of the container, and they record all the items into the digital database. A small plastic bag, containing similar specific information about each object, is placed under the object on the tray it came on. This serves as a placeholder for the item so that it goes back to the same spot once it is no longer on display. Keefe hand-labels each piece and box using a key to help write out the numbers and lettering. Incredibly the pair has organized an entire corner of the collections room, one Tuesday session at a time.

Lanctot hopes that one day the digital database will be available to the public and used as a learning tool.

“You could potentially have students adding research to objects that we don’t have a lot of information about,” Lanctot said. “It’s hard to show everything and create a system of learning of thematic exhibition that allows people to understand the objects more deeply. You can’t show all the objects all the time.”

Pictured are some of the Native American porcupine quill-baskets that are part of the DeVos Art Museum’s permanent collection. (Journal photo by Corey Kelly)

Kordich and Keefe have made a large dent in the collection, but there are areas that even Angels haven’t been able to touch. Currently, the museum hopes to find help in properly identifying objects in the Japanese collection. Community members with knowledge of Japanese art, or who speak Japanese, should contact Lanctot at the museum. Without better information, it is hard for staff to properly assign a value to some of the items.

“There is a whole intricate and traditional knowledge that some of us just don’t have,” Lanctot said on the difficulties of having a large and varied collection.

Lanctot recognizes the value of working in a community where the public is involved in the operation of the museum.

“The museum and the educational program were created because the community felt strongly about having a place in Marquette where students and the community could experience art and original art objects,” she said. “Without community involvement and community action we wouldn’t have the DeVos.”