The work of a cataloguer is never done.
Many ‘fully’ catalogued artworks are just one conservation treatment shy of full medium analysis, one census record short of a complete artist’s biography, one eureka moment away from a confirmed production date, title or attribution. While the task of cataloguing is a process of discovery, cataloguers aspire to know what’s what. We secretly like our art signed and dated and believe that the only good reference is a primary one. The term ‘mixed media’ makes us cry.
The Cataloguing Department records and verifies the physical and historical particulars of art in the NGV Collection in collaboration with curators, registrars and conservators. Our goal is to one day see each and every artwork fully documented and described and we aim to ensure that the terms of reference used are as consistent as possible.
Cataloguing takes patience, perseverance, attention to detail…, and it helps to be a bit of an art nerd. With one foot placed in collection management, another in research and a toe or two in art handling and conservation, cataloguers require a broad range of skills and often train as curators, archivists, conservators or artists before discovering that the path they tread leads to…, Cataloguing Land.
Although the NGV’s Cataloguing Department has little in common with a theme park, it does sometimes feel like another world. Our work is carried out behind the scenes, often in storage, sometimes in conservation labs or photography studios and occasionally in gallery spaces or private homes. The tools of the cataloguing trade are many and varied – they need to be. The NGV acquires a broad range of art – Australian, International, Ancient, Contemporary, 2-D, 3-D and digital.
We work with hefty bronze sculptures, delicate ochre paintings and intricate installations. We hold our breath as we lift fragile ceramics to check the base for inscriptions, we climb ladders and drill lids back onto storage crates. Our ‘useful box’ contains a variety of tape measures, set squares, torches, magnifying lenses and of course gloves. Of equal importance are our research tools. We utilise a number of traditional and online resources including books, catalogues and magazines, local and international archives, databases, indexes, auction records, and newspapers.
The information compiled by cataloguers is shared with you in a variety of ways. It makes its way on to display labels, appears in published exhibition checklists and image captions for media kits, brochures and even postcards of works in the collection and is also accessible online.
During my years as a cataloguer I have worked with a wonderful variety of artworks and through them I have learnt that there is a great deal to see at the NGV.