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 friends and volunteer archivist Diane Kordich and Marilyn Keefe go behind gallery walls of the DeVos Art Museum and into the collections room where the pair have been organizing the museum’s permanent collection for the last decade.

Referred to by staff as the “Archive Angels,” the two women have been offering their time since 2007 to properly sort, store, classify and record each of the 2,000 pieces in the museum, located on Northern Michigan University’s campus.

With Keefe being an NMU art department graduate, and Kordich a retired art department professor, the two retired friends’ artistic backgrounds made them a perfect fit for the incredibly detailed task of handling delicate objects. Kordich has even participated as a donor, having given her inventory of 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 has to compile and record all the information associated with the item.

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)

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

She went on to describe the process of how each piece is first cleaned, then an artist’s name and identification is added to the item before it is stashed away. The Angels use acid-free archive boxes and materials to house the piece when it is not on display. The pair often custom-fit boxes to hold multiple items 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, hand-label every piece and multiple sides of the archival boxes– listing each unique identification number on the outside of the containers as well as pictures of the box’s contents so the item can be easily found or identified. A small plastic bag, containing similar identification information, is placed with the objects in that specific archival box. The bag serves as a placeholder for the item so that it goes back to the same spot once it is no longer on display. Incredibly, the pair has organized an entire corner of the collections room, one Tuesday session at a time. After that tedious process, the pair records all information associated with that piece into the museum’s digital database.

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

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)

“You could potentially have students adding research to objects that we don’t have a lot of information about,” she 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.”

Kordich and Keefe have made a significant dent in the collection, but there are areas that even Angels can’t touch. Currently, the museum needs help in correctly 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 adequately assign 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 organizing a large and varied collection.

She 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.”