Supporting the work of the Royal Academy of Arts
Rachel Hewitt, Collections Manager at the Royal Academy dicusses her role in preserving and maintaining the history of the Academy's permanent collection.
From the moment I walk through the courtyard of Burlington House, every day is different. For the last five years I have worked in the Collections and Library department and my particular area of responsibility is to manage the collection of 1000 paintings and 800 sculptures as well as a variety of other objects such as silver and artists’ equipment. This involves managing the works on display and the various storage areas both on and off site; organising changes of displays; administering the conservation programme; arranging photography, packing, moving or transportation of works of art; viewings, public enquiries and giving tours. It is varied job which never gets boring!
The RA’s first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds, gave his ‘Self Portrait’ to the Academy in 1780, and urged the other Foundation Members of the RA to do the same. Since then, every newly elected Academician has been required to donate a piece of their work to the RA. These ‘Diploma works’ form the core of the collection and give a fascinating insight into the state of British art at any particular time. The Collections hold important works by many of our most admired painters, sculptors, architects and printmakers, and are unique in having been assembled not by connoisseurs or museum curators, but by and for artists themselves.
Changes of display are carefully planned, and liaising with the art handlers and the conservators is crucial. Most objects are moved through the RA before the building is open to the public at 10am. Often there are many other aspects of display to think about too, such as labels, lighting, posters and gallery guides.
The RA has a very active loans programme which sees approximately 100 works of art from the collection travel to other institutions worldwide, every year. Loans are planned months if not years in advance and I work with the collections Registrar to prepare the works for loan, and ensure they are safe to travel and be displayed elsewhere. Every work of art or object has its own problems or requirements and each and every one is treated individually; how one work needs to be handled, packed or hung will be completely different from another.
The Collections and Library department has just embarked on a programme of ‘behind-the-scenes’ tours for the public. This enables our visitors to experience the stores where the collections are housed, as well learn about the Library and Archive; one the oldest institutional fine arts library in the UK, the other one of the most important resources for the study of British art history:
The RA has work by previous RAs such as Gainsborough, Constable, Turner, Lowry, Leighton and Sargent, and has recently been given work by newly-elected RA’s such as Michael Craig-Martin, Tacita Dean and Tracey Emin. Every new work is documented, given a unique museum number and given a location, and we have a project to catalogue and photograph as much of the collection as we can. The results of this can be seen on the RA Collections website: http://www.racollection.org.uk/
I hope that the work we do today on the collection, both to preserve what we already have and to develop the collections and the way we use them, will be of benefit both now and in the future.