Editors from SLMag this week had a rare opportunity to visit the hidden treasures, as we dubbed them, of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Most of the UMFA's permanent collection is stored underground. We even had a burly security guard following us around on the tour to deter an Indiana Jones impulse to snatch an ancient Chinese porcelain and make a run for it.

These aren't by any means lost works of art, simply pieces that don't often get into the public galleries above. Museums today are considered a kind of entertainment—the public flocks to travelling blockbuster exhibits featuring ancient pharoahs or gruesome body parts. It's easy to forget that the heart and soul of a museum often lies elsewhere, in its permanent collection that may seldom be put on public view.

The UMFA has more than 20,000 pieces of art stored in climate-controlled, geophysically protected safeness below the museum on the UofU campus, so its understandable that much of it is seldom, if ever, seen by the public.

We met museum staff and volunteers who are meticulously cleaning, photographing and cataloging a collection of textiles of upwards of 300 pieces that includes many spectacular 1920-1930s Navajo blankets. Plus the occasional surprise. 

“It's amazing,” said Conservator Robyn Haynie of a spectacular example of a thangka silk fabric with repeating Buddhas that had been unrolled. “You'll find these kinds of pieces randomly.” 

Fabrics take meticulous care to catalog and store—in this case, the painted thangka should never have been rolled in the first place. Once it is flattened, cleaned and cataloged, it will be stored properly flat. Other fabrics require carefully controlled levels of light and humidity to preserve them. 

And in the end, preservation is what a museum is all about. 

In other parts of the underground and unseen by the public museum, we were treated to glimpses of posters, contemporary art works, impossibly delicate porcelain figurines, furniture and Asian carving. All of it was carefully sequestered and protected. Truth be told, some of it is quite ugly. But beauty is in the eye of the collector, and museums are fed more by bequeathed collections than by acquisition. 

“You can see why we have to limit what we accept,” said Jennifer Ortiz, collections manager (below with thangka) who is overseeing the cleaning and cataloging of the textile collection. 

 

It's painstaking, even tedious, work—going over each piece inch by inch—recording its thread count, confirming its provenance, cleaning it with tiny, gentle vacuum cleaners and screens. But getting these textiles catalogued will improve their chances of making it into a future exhibition above ground. Meaning you may get a glimpse of UMFA's hidden treasures.