Lessons Learned: Experiences from the 2022 U of A Museums Mactaggart Art Collection GRAs

Meet Wei Lu and Riddhi Patel - GRAs with the U of A Museums Mactaggart Art Collection! Read about their summer experiences with the unit and with the museum collection.

Meet Wei Lu and Riddhi Patel - graduate students in the Faculty of Arts. Since May 2022, they have been GRAs with the U of A Museums Mactaggart Art Collection. Below are their reflections on working with the U of A Museums unit and with the Mactaggart Art Collection over the summer. 

My Summer Museum-logue 

Wei Lu

Like many people, I have wondered what it would be like to work in a university museum. What makes it unique from other museums? I believe the answers are waiting to be discovered through first-hand knowledge. Even before I enrolled at the University of Alberta, I had heard about the outstanding collection of Chinese works of art in the Mactaggart Art Collection, so I have been looking forward to visiting it for a long time. This summer, I finally got a great opportunity to work for the University of Alberta Museums (UAM), satisfying my past curiosity and all my expectations. Oh, I nearly forgot to introduce myself. My name is Wei Lu, and this is my first year of Ph.D. study in art history. My time spent as a graduate research assistant (GRA) in the Mactaggart Art Collection is something I’d like to share with you. 

My mentors, Jennifer Bowser and Jill Horbay from the University of Alberta Museums unit, gave me and my fellow GRA a thorough rundown of the projects and outlined the timeline we needed to complete, making everything clear on the first day of orientation. Our works for the summer included the preservation, conservation, and documentation of museum collections and research on the works of art. We can always honour the past of culture by carefully documenting it and keeping its relics safe while also telling the story to the future. Therefore, I’m more than happy to learn how to treat them properly. In our rehousing project, Riddhi and I repackaged and organized different fragments of ancient fabrics which included ribbons, badges, collars, etc. Handling techniques vary depending on the material, size, and shape. The process calls for not only patience but also reflection. You can’t help but wonder what these delicate and fragile pieces looked like when they were whole. I become more cautious while dealing with them since I want the people after me to be able to see and envision them as well. 

It is challenging to have a complete grasp of a work of art if all you know about it is what you read about in books or a glimpse from afar. What could therefore be more exciting for an art history student than a close-up, hands-on encounter with the artwork? Before conducting research for one of our projects, we examined the works of art in person. I might add that I was lucky enough to see all the “big names” of Chinese calligraphers and painters, such as Zhao Mengfu, Wang Hui, Wen Zhengming, and so on. My delight as the scrolls were opened is beyond words. The main goal of this research project was to appropriately describe the object and its content to then enter a record in the Mimsy collections management database, referencing the sources we have found. I’m pleased to read about the back-scene stories and histories of the works of art in the museum collection. This practice inspired a sense of awe and recognition of the beauty of art. Also, it has been quite helpful in developing our academic research skills. 

Overall, I have had a great time working here. The UAM provides a fantastic learning environment as well as thoughtful instruction from the staff members. In addition, I am excited that this GRA work in the Mactaggart Art Collection will continue through the fall semester. By then, perhaps, I’ll be working on some new projects and continue to provide interesting content to you.

A Radiant summer at UAM 2022

Riddhi Patel

What’s the general idea about museums?
What tasks would you think of,
when you are working in a museum?
Well I am Riddhi,
and I worked in a Museum
this summer with a soak of sodium.
I am an artist.
Meeting project deadlines,
strict working hours
Wasn’t my fixed routine.
Planning, Gantt charts, empathy maps 
and detailed deadlines
is something I learned and inhaled.
It's the University of Alberta Museums we are talking about.
There are friendly faces round the corner,
always ready to cheer you up.
Just like a clear sunny sky
amidst the Canadian Winters.

Summers in Edmonton are warm and joyful for everyone, but doing something productive amidst that makes you grin with satisfaction. Such is my satisfaction from working as a Graduate Research Assistant (GRA) with the University of Alberta Museums (UAM) this summer alongside Wei Lu. We have grown a lot since we arrived here, and the poetry above describes our experience as summer interns. So, here is a look back at some projects I enjoyed working on during that time.

In the Mactaggart Art Collection, there are robes, album leaves, costumes, beaded necklaces, and charming shoes worn by Qing dynasty royalty and commoners. Seeing these objects was like going back in time. Isabel (Pi-fen) Chueh, the curator of the Mactaggart Art Collection, told many fascinating stories and facts while we assisted with a public tour of the collection. Robes, paintings, and rank badges were on display, and visitors were eager to learn more about their origins, symbolism, and use of materials. It was one of the most intriguing projects we worked on over the summer.

As a child, discipline and orderly arrangements of things were very important to me and my mother was very particular about them. This upbringing came in handy when we worked on rehousing fragments  from the Mactaggart Art Collection. There were several robe and ribbon fragments that needed to be organized so they could be used for teaching and research purposes in the future. We categorized several boxes holding specific material objects, and Wei and I had a good time deciphering the functions of such objects. For example, there was a large round-shaped cloth that we later discovered was a robe sleeve. Then we organized the boxes and tracked the objects' locations within them. Our efforts were worthwhile and it took us three weeks to organize and box all the items. 

Another memorable day for me was meeting Shirley Ellis, a contract textiles conservator at the UAM. I first saw her while she was restoring a Qing Dynasty robe. Her work was so delicate and nuanced that it inspired me to learn more about conservation techniques and consider it as a possible career option. After learning about my interest in conservation practices, my supervisor, Jennifer Bowser, Moveable Cultural Property Advisor at UAM, introduced us to a whole new world of conservation-grade materials used for object preservation. She personally demonstrated each material and provided extensive information about its application. Some materials, like conservation grade Tyvek, seemed like a potential material I could also use in my own artistic practice. 

I am sincerely thankful to the UAM team for providing us with an enriching experience as well as a pleasant and peaceful working environment. Working as a GRA with the University of Alberta Museums is an excellent opportunity for incoming Art and Design students to experience something new and challenging while also learning about a distinct career path. We were fortunate to speak with other museum employees and learn about their professional trajectories and resources, which was very motivating. The UAM has truly done a lot for us and given us some fantastic opportunities.