Q: What is your job title and what do you do at the National Portrait Gallery?
A: I am the registrar for exhibitions and loans. I deal mostly with artwork coming into the Portrait Gallery for special exhibitions or inclusion in permanent exhibitions, as well as work we lend to other museums. The Registrar’s Office works very closely with the Conservation and Design & Production departments to ensure the artwork is maintained safely and securely.
When NPG borrows or lends artwork, with conservation and curatorial input, I negotiate loan agreements, setting in place the legal, conservation, packing and shipping, insurance, and art handling requirements that have to be adhered to.
Working with other NPG conservators, other museums, art packers, craters, and shippers, I coordinate the special packing and shipping needs—I’m a travel agent for artwork. When we ship artwork overseas, I work closely with customs brokers and freight forwarders to ensure that all of the import or export documents and permits are in place.
Sometimes I courier artwork, which means I travel with it to the borrowing museum, ensuring its safety during transit. Upon arrival, I oversee its unpacking and installation. Along with our art-handling staff, I unpack and condition-report artwork for the Portrait Gallery’s special exhibitions and coordinate de-installations.
Q: Where did you attend college, and how did you train to do what you do?
A: I have a studio art degree with an emphasis in drawing and design from George Mason University. By studying visual art, I gained knowledge about various art mediums and how works of art are constructed. This helps me greatly in my job as we complete what’s called “condition reports” on every artwork that enters and leaves the Portrait Gallery.
These reports document, by photography and the written word, any sort of damages, problems, or weaknesses that the artwork contains. When it leaves NPG’s custody, the artwork is examined again to ensure there aren’t any new problems.
I also gained knowledge and hands-on experience on the job; out of college I began working as a volunteer in art storage at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where I was mentored by a wonderful staff member. This led to a permanent position in their Registrar’s Office, which eventually led to becoming the assistant registrar at the National Museum of African Art. This led me to the Portrait Gallery.
Q: What is your favorite object in the collection and why?
A: I have two favorites: the John Singleton Copley self-portrait (right) is one of them. It’s a beautifully painted portrait—very romantic and delicate—and it captures an otherworldly mood. Also, I like our portrait of Pocahontas for personal reasons.
Q: Do you have a favorite NPG story you would like to share?
A: I’ve been so fortunate in that through my position at NPG, I’ve traveled to wonderful places, made friends with colleagues all over the world, met famous people, and have physically touched incredible art that you see in art history books.
One favorite story is when NPG borrowed the Oscar that director Vincent Minnelli won for Gigi from his wife for our “Red, Hot, and Blue” exhibition. I traveled to Beverly Hills, where I visited Mrs. Minnelli’s house (was escorted through the servants’ door!). She regaled me with wonderful old Hollywood stories as I packed the Oscar in her living room filled with photographs and memorabilia of Hollywood stars and politicians past and present.
After I finished, she gave me a tour of the house, ending in Vincent Minnelli’s bedroom, which she had left exactly as it was when he died—his glasses on his desk, robe on the bed, slippers on the floor, book opened, exercise bike in the middle of the room—it was like a Hollywood set.
I hand-carried the Oscar from LA to DC via a commercial airline; we had to buy an additional seat for the Oscar, which sat next to me for the five-hour flight. No one else on the plane knew there was an Oscar on board; discretion is one of the main tenets of a museum career.
More recently I traveled to Moscow, Russia, to oversee the deinstallation and packing of two paintings the Portrait Gallery lent to an exhibition at the Russian Academy of Art, Tsereteli Art Gallery. Though it sounds like a glamorous trip, I arrived on Sunday and departed on Tuesday—courier trips are very quick and can be grueling.
It was an amazing experience, though, as I was able to visit the Basilica of St. Basil, the Kremlin, Red Square—places I never in my life thought I would see. The gallery was from the eighteenth or nineteenth century and had no freight elevator, so our large paintings had to be hand-carried down two flights of marble staircases that were lined on either side with marble sculptures on pedestals.
After the niceties of having tea with our Russian host, we packed in a huge atrium where, staring down as us from on high, were Communist-era statues reaching several stories high. Working with the Russian museum staff was especially challenging—out of the several people I worked with, only one spoke limited English, so we communicated mostly by sign language.
Luckily, another American colleague from Dubai was working on the exhibition, too, so between the two of us we were able to get the paintings packed safely and quickly. All in all, the Russian museum staff was a pleasure to work with, and it was an experience I would have never wanted to miss.
John Singleton Copley, Self-Portrait / Oil on canvas, 1780-1784 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation with matching funds from the Smithsonian Institution; Frame conserved with funds from the Smithsonian Women's Committee