Behind the scenes at Crawford Art Gallery, Cork: Jean O’Donovan, registrar

I’m  the registrar at Crawford Art Gallery. As registrar, I am responsible for the care and protection of every artwork that comes through the gallery’s door.

Firstly, I ensure that our documentation provides an accurate account of every artwork’s life at Crawford Art Gallery. Catalogue information, its condition, all of its movements from past locations to present location, up-to-date images of all artworks, possible installation instructions from the artist, any research arising from curators working on exhibitions: I put all that information into a centralised collection management system.

I prepare artworks for exhibition and manage the art handling team, how they install those artworks and present them. I’m also responsible for the logistics of all movements of artworks, whether that is our artworks moving around the gallery or going out on loan to other institutions, or other artworks coming here to be exhibited.

Despite occasional stresses, I really love my work, and feel privileged to be having this intimate interaction with the national collection on a daily basis. What is being exhibited in any museum is just the tip of the iceberg, with most of a collection in storage and not visible to the public. I constantly get to operate within that behind-the-scenes area, which is amazing.


 I’ve been registrar at Crawford since 2015. I’m now facing into my biggest career challenge to date, which is the logistics of decanting the entire collection from Crawford Art Gallery in preparation for the building’s renovation and redevelopment, which is set to start at the end of this year.

In the coming weeks, we begin the process of slowly and carefully moving artworks out of the building and into secure storage. It’s an exciting but somewhat scary prospect to decant the collection, to keep it safe while we’re offsite, and then return it all in advance of the reopening.

As registrar, you are constantly assessing and mitigating for risk wherever possible.

This means making a plan for how each artwork will be packed and transported, who will transport it, who will travel with it, who will receive it, and how it will be cared for while it’s gone.

Over 3,000 artworks in Crawford Art Gallery’s collection range from paintings to sculptures to works on paper. But because of the building’s 300-year history, we have an additional 1,500 items of archival material to consider and evaluate: furniture, glassware, ceramics, and even a taxidermized loggerhead turtle!

 Seamus Murphy sculptures 

 I’ve recently been looking at movement and storage plans for the Séamus Murphy bequest.

In 2006, we were incredibly fortunate to receive a large bequest from the Murphy family of the famous Cork sculptor’s works. These are mainly plaster, so extremely fragile and require special care.

It’s the largest holding of Séamus Murphy’s works in any institution, and we have busts of a number of culturally and historically significant figures as well as some very moving pieces, including the death masks he created of Patrick Kavanagh, Frank O’Connor, Séan Ó Riada and others.

Jean O Donovan, Registrar, Crawford Art Gallery, examining the death mask of Frank O'Connor by Cork sculptor Séamus Murphy. Picture: Clare Keogh 
Jean O Donovan, Registrar, Crawford Art Gallery, examining the death mask of Frank O’Connor by Cork sculptor Séamus Murphy. Picture: Clare Keogh 

We’ve decided these works will be safer in crates, so we’re having bespoke slotted crates made, with individual compartments for busts of different sizes, and we will pack the inside of each crate with padding to keep them extra safe. These crates will take a number of weeks to be made. Once they are delivered to the gallery we will pack the busts and visitors may even be able to glimpse the process as it is underway.

It would be disastrous if the crates didn’t fit, so our tech team have been working in the Séamus Murphy room for the past three weeks, measuring every single bust, figure and death mask to make sure the dimensions on our database are as precise as possible so we get no nasty surprises when the crates arrive.

Looking to the future 

 Storage for the collection at Crawford Art Gallery is going to be vastly improved following redevelopment. To date, our storage facilities have been adaptations to pre-existing conditions in historic buildings. We work well with what we have, but when we return, we will have two new floors of custom storage for our artworks.

So as well as all the work of preparing for the decant, I’ve been working with a consultant in The Netherlands to provide him with a variety of measurements so he can help us map the collection onto new storage designs that currently only exist as architects’ plans.

There will be major changes to how the works are stored when we return to the building following redevelopment. But it’s exciting to think of the future, and of Crawford Art Gallery continuing to care for the collection for centuries to come.

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