The Skill Of Museum Collections Management

– It isn’t just about the money, it is also about changing the way we think of ourselves as individuals and professionals; it is about the way we perceive the preservation of cultural heritage and the necessity to understand that any recovery starts from within, and there has to be a desire to make the change, – says Fionn Zarubica, an American of Serbian descent

By Željka Trninić

Fionn Zarubica, an American of Montenegran descent, is a successful artist and a museologist, as well as a lecturer on the topic of museum collections management at the University of Long Beach, California. She was born and raised in a renowned family of artists, in one of Hollywood’s most beautiful houses. She graduated from two universities and she has since been an opera singer, conductor, ballerina, artistic dressage rider, archeologist, Hollywood costume designer, and excellent interpreter of Old Church Slavic songs both in the local St Steven’s Orthodox Cathedral in Alhambra (Los Angeles, California) built by her grandfather, and in Belgrade, where she has received the official title of church singer and now sings in Belgrade churches every Sunday.

She is proud of her Serbian origin from her father’s side of the family, and she happily emphasizes that her family came from Old Herzegovina to the New World in late 19th century. Fionn Zarubica’s parents were conventional people and raised her according to the Serbian tradition, which nurtures self-respect, tradition and personal resolve.

On her Norwegian mother’s side, she is the granddaughter of two prominent classical musicians. Her grandmother Laura was a concert pianist, and her grandfather Frederik an opera singer who taught singing to many of the early Hollywood stars. Her mother Anita made sure that all five of her children took classical music lessons, and Fionn took up the violin. Later on, she became interested in singing. In quite a natural turn of events, she wished to serve the church with the gift she had been blessed with. The Old Church Slavic language is traditionally used in the Serbian Orthodox Church, and her artistic curiosity got her to explore different tonalities. Her father Miladin and his sister Anka, whose father was from Provalija, Montenegro, and mother from Boka Kotorska, Montenegro, were prolific painters, and her father was also one of the best-selling novelists in USA.

Fionn Zarubica is a guest lecturer at the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade and she teaches the purpose and technologies of the latest techniques of conservation of artistic works. She has just finished managing a Training Program in a new area of museum collections management, during which she has educated Serbian experts on how to preserve and present art and cultural heritage in a modern way.

You visited Serbia for the first time two years ago. What was the motivation for you to stay and take part in the preservation of the cultural treasures of the country of your origin?

– I wanted to give my support and expert advice on the preservation and protection of Serbia’s immense cultural heritage. That is why my company “Fionn Zarubica and Associates”, in cooperation with the Central Institute for Conservation in Belgrade and the US Embassy in Belgrade, started the program for managing museum collections, offering first-class training in the area of museum collections management to professionals and those on the way to becoming professionals in the area of cultural heritage protection in Southeast Europe.

You came across numerous artifacts that are part of Serbian cultural heritage. What was your impression?

– Thanks to Mila Popović Živančević, the Director of the Central Institute for Conservation in Belgrade, I had the honor of seeing cultural heritage all over Serbia. Whenever we had a chance, she would literally whisk me away in her car, and drive me from one village to another and from one museum to another. My friends often make jokes about that and say I have seen more of Serbia than they have, although they have lived here since birth. This experience has truly ennobled me.

What is the museum collections management program and how was it conceived?

– The program provides fundamental and advanced instructions as well as practical training in the area of modern museum collections management, focusing on the urgent need to enable those in direct contact with local collections to constantly and significantly enrich these collections, through documentation and preventive conservation. The program is arranged in three sessions. The first session is dedicated to why we do what we do. It deals with the fundamental issues of caring for a collection within an institution. We examine how society determines what exactly is the value to be cherished and we provide a review of the museum profession, differentiating various kinds of collections and museums. We study the methods of registration and the essential concepts, principals and techniques of collections management. The second session elaborates how we do what we do. We focus on working with artifacts, including the basics of handling an artifact in order to secure its safety, the materials and techniques for storing cultural property, preservation and preservation depots, museum pest control, preparation of artifacts and their transportation within a museum, finding creative solutions, storage and preservation of museum artifacts using local resources, expanding collections, documentation and artifact labeling. We also deal with risk management, as well as ensuring the health and safety of museum employees and visitors. The third session considers how what we do influences others, public aspects of institutions through exhibits, education, various programs for approaching a community, as well as inter-institutional cooperation, loans, revenues and fund raising. It is also about museum ethics, efficient resource exploitation, what the best practices are and sustainability.

What does the term “collections manager” signify and what makes it different from a curator or a conservator?

– What is dominant in most countries is the traditional model of a curator and conservator who need to tend to their collections’ every need. In reality, the curator is usually an art historian whose job is to interpret art, whereas the job of a conservator is the conservation and restoration of works of art. In the past ten years, with the development of their collections, the museums in USA started to recognize the need for trained professionals who could form a bridge between these two highly specialized positions – someone who tends to a collection by performing various duties every day. This person documents a collection, properly prepares it for preservation, supervises the collection as well as the rooms for artifact preservation (museum depots), monitors it, moves it within the museum and helps in the process of setting up an exhibition. So far Serbia doesn’t have museum collections managers, but once this program has been completed it will and I am certain that everyone who participated in the program will be very successful at performing professional tasks.

Who attended your lectures and what did you teach them?

– The attendees came from five countries in the region and eight towns in Serbia. I taught them art and collection management skills so that they can work in cultural institutions in their own countries or anywhere else in the world.

The museums in Serbia are in a rather poor condition. How can we improve this situation and is it just about the money?

– It isn’t just about the money, it is also about changing the way we think of ourselves as individuals and professionals; it is about the way we perceive the preservation of cultural heritage and the necessity to understand that any recovery starts from within, and there has to exist a desire to make the change. It is about the holistic approach to education and professional development, in this case, basic care for museum collections with the application of an efficient and clearly defined protection strategy, which is important for a certain region, its individuals and resources.

How can the people in Serbia be encouraged to visit museums more often?

– Two things are important. One is that museums should plan to have several dynamic and appealing exhibits every year which would attract the audience, and should rotate their permanent exhibits more frequently so that visitors can expect to see something new whenever they come. The other is that museums should forge a closer bond with schools and create as many educational museum-related programs as possible to attract school-age children. They are our future museum-goers and it is of the utmost importance that we teach them to appreciate art while they are young and open to gaining knowledge.

How do you find the time for all the activities in your life – your university job, the exhibitions, singing, conducting, your work in Serbia and everything else?

– I definitely work very hard and I don’t have time for other things, but I love my job and I really enjoy it. Sometimes it’s difficult to balance things, but eventually I always do and it gives me great pleasure, especially if I accomplish something important. That’s precisely why we are here.