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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.

 

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

 

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Click on thumbnails to view larger images.

Behind-the-scenes: Customizing a mannequin, from legs to limbs, to display a World War I uniform

By Jill Morena

Presenting a costume or historical clothing on a mannequin may seem deceptively simple at first glance. Yet there is rarely an instance of a mannequin, standardized or made-to-measure, that is ready to use “out-of-the-box.” Each area of the body—shoulders, torso, arms, legs, and feet—must be customized and often requires several fittings with the garment. This is similar to the process of fitting a made-to-order garment to a human body, although in this case the process is reversed as the mannequin must be shaped and conform to the garment.

 

A World War I uniform, from the collection of the Texas Military Forces Museum and currently on display in The World at War, 1914–1918, presented us with a particular challenge. The physique of most modern, full-body mannequins is too tall, muscular, and athletic for early twentieth-century clothing and footwear. The size of the mannequin must always be smaller than the measurements of the costume to allow for supportive padding and to prevent any stress or strain on the costume when dressing or on display. We made the decision to pad up an adolescent/teenage dress form that was already in our inventory and to construct realistic-looking legs, a crucial element in presenting the ensemble successfully.

 

This was our first time to use Fosshape, a polyester polymer material often used for theater costume design or millinery. Textile conservators have recently explored and used Fosshape for museum display, and we decided to use this flexible, adaptable material to construct the legs. An approximate tapered “leg” shape was cut, sewn, and placed over the calves and ankles of a full-body mannequin to get a realistic leg shape. When steam heat is applied to the Fosshape, it reacts, shrinks, and hardens to the shape of the mold beneath.

 

Because the leg dimensions of this particular mannequin were too large to safely fit through the narrow hem of the uniform jodhpurs, we had to “take in” the legs to a smaller circumference, while still retaining an accurate calf and knee shape. Because the definition was lessened somewhat, we made “knee” and “calf” pads to help support and define the shape of these areas. Additional Fosshape pieces were created and steamed to provide more structure and interior support.

 

The legs were adjusted accordingly and covered with a smooth polyester fabric to aid with dressing, and pieces of velcro were sewn to the inside of the Fosshape legs and the exterior of the mannequin legs for easy attachment.

 

Arm patterns, taken from an excellent resource on mannequin creation and modification, A Practical Guide to Costume Mounting by Lara Flecker, were modified to fit the length and curvature of the jacket’s arms. Once sewn, the arms were filled with soft polyester batting and sewn to the mannequin’s shoulders. The chest and back were padded out where needed, and a flesh-colored finishing fabric was cut, sewn, and secured to the mannequin’s neck.

 

The final crucial details were aligning and orienting two twin silver mannequin stands so that they would reflect a natural body stance once the legs and boots were placed. Additionally, the stands were covered with a matte black fabric, so the high shine of the silver bases would not distract from the uniform. Once the stand was correctly aligned and covered, dressing the mannequin could begin.

 

Constructing, modifying, or dressing a mannequin is never a solitary endeavor. This entire process was a collaboration between the curator of costumes and personal effects and conservation and exhibitions staff. Colleagues Mary Baughman, Ken Grant, Apryl Voskamp, and John Wright were invaluable with their help and expertise.

 

Top image: World War I uniform on display in Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 1914-1918. Photo by Pete Smith. Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

If you are visiting the Ransom Center this week, here are the holiday hours.

Conservator Ken Grant works in the paper lab, consolidating the paint layer on designer Norman Bel Geddes’s 1926 drawing for floats and participants in Macy’s parade. The drawing will be included in an upcoming exhibition on Bel Geddes, with support generously provided by an FAIC/Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Conservator Ken Grant works in the paper lab, consolidating the paint layer on designer Norman Bel Geddes’s 1926 drawing for floats and participants in Macy’s parade. The drawing will be included in an upcoming exhibition on Bel Geddes, with support generously provided by an FAIC/Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
A close-up of Norman Bel Geddes's aero clown. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
A close-up of Norman Bel Geddes's aero clown. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
Norman Bel Geddes’s 1926 sketch for a clown in Macy’s parade. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
Norman Bel Geddes’s 1926 sketch for a clown in Macy’s parade. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
Norman Bel Geddes's sketch included color scheme specifications. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
Norman Bel Geddes's sketch included color scheme specifications. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.