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Meet the Staff: Ken Grant, Exhibition Conservator and Head of Exhibition Services

By Marlene Renz

Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Ken Grant received a Bachelor of Science in Geology from the University of Iowa and then worked as a logging geologist in the oil field for six years. In 1992 he started at the State University of New York College at Buffalo where he later received his Master of Arts in Paper Conservation. He joined the Ransom Center in 1997 and has worked as Assistant Paper Conservator and Paper Conservator, but he now serves as Exhibitions Conservator and Head of Exhibition Services.

Ken Grant inspects lighting for Frida Kahlo’s “Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.” Photo by Pete Smith.
Ken Grant inspects lighting for Frida Kahlo’s “Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.” Photo by Pete Smith.

The oil and museum industries are very different. What brought about your career switch?

As an undergrad I was interested in materials related to geology. I needed a job, and the oil field was booming and hiring anyone with a bachelor’s degree in geology. I gave it a try, and I enjoyed the travel, but I did not enjoy the oil field. The industrial culture was not conducive to my interest in museum work. Most of my friends from college were artists or art history majors or that sort of thing. And what they did interested me more in the long term than geology. When the bust of the mid-80s came to the oil fields I was out of a job and decided to go back to graduate school. I wanted to go back to something I really felt I enjoyed or was intrigued by.


How would you describe your job? How has it changed?

In a nutshell, it’s a coordinating position. I coordinate the preparation and installation of collection material for exhibitions. It involves the purchasing, resource management, and packing of materials for loan. There are loans to other institutions, loans on campus, and loans to the state government. I’m between the curatorial and the preparation functions. I don’t do conservation treatments anymore, and I haven’t for many years, and I miss it. I think that the actual hands-on interaction with the collection materials that a conservator does is very exciting. In some ways, it is a privileged kind of activity, not everybody gets to bathe rare drawings. However, moving into an administrative position allows you to see a broader range of the institutional functions. There’s a lot more conversation about development, membership, public affairs, and even development of the curatorial collecting areas.


What are the main benefits of loaning materials to other institutions?

I think that there’s always a benefit as an institution by making your presence known among the community of collecting institutions. You gain recognition of not only what materials you have, but also what you have in terms of staff and the capability of building the collection and using the collection. Oftentimes this awareness comes through a curator-to-curator conversation. That’s huge because it’s the network of people who you know that really creates your ability to move around within that world and make really great exhibitions happen.


There’s also the publicity benefit. Materials from the Harry Ransom Center are identified at the borrowing institution. That happens with very charismatic loan materials that we have, like the Frida Kahlo self-portrait. Almost exclusively, that portrait becomes the signature portrait for the exhibition that it travels to. That’s how powerful it is. When it is the signature portrait, it’s placed on banners, it gets put on posters, and buses. So you’ll see our portrait in all of these different places being used to promote the exhibition. I think loaning is recognized as a very useful tool that helps to develop the institution as a whole because it raises the profile of the institution.


What are your biggest apprehensions concerning the transportation process for materials?

There’s a very well-documented protocol in the museum world that is understood between different collecting institutions. In a lot of ways that is a comfort, a way of making the process more predictable and therefore less risky. My biggest concern probably would be not so much in the transportation per se. Sometimes loaning to institutions we’ve never loaned to before creates a little bit of uncertainty. We don’t know what the other institution understands or feels is important with regard to the loan process. That’s where communication is absolutely vital because we have to figure out what their expectations are explicitly with regard to the loan.


What do you like to do outside of work?

Outside of work I like to sleep, but apart from that I’m interested in historic photographic processes. I don’t get to practice it that much, but I am interested in learning about these processes and trying to recreate them. In my ideal world, I would have my own darkroom, and I would use historic processes because there is a richness of chemistry and aesthetic possibility within the photographic process. A lot of these older processes create tones and visual textures that you just don’t get with inkjet printers.


What about historic photographic processes interests you?

I think it’s the chemistry of it. The fact that so many different people along the way had to work out all of the chemical processes that go into creating a photograph is really interesting to me. There’s a huge amount of history there. Another thing I think is really interesting is the excitement that was created by the reproduction of images. It filled a need that wasn’t even known and didn’t even need to be met. Print culture followed the ability to print multiple copies of pictures and illustrated magazines. It captured people’s imagination and created this hunger in people for more and more images. They just wanted more, and that’s what digital photography has brought to the ultimate degree.


Related content?

A World of Interest: Frida Kahlo’s Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird

Slideshow: Installation of door from Frank Shay’s Greenwich Village bookshop

John and Ken’s Excellent Adventure

Read more posts in our Meet the Staff series

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