Editor’s Note: This is the first in a Notre Dame Magazine series documenting the move from the Snite Museum to the new Raclin Murphy Museum.
The figure of the elegant terra cotta lady is in remarkably pristine condition, considering she’s nearly 250 years old.
Art handler Matt Bean ’13MFA is handcrafting a wooden crate to cradle the fragile 18th-century French sculpture, known as “Bust of an Unknown Young Woman,” by Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne the Younger.
The box has thick plywood on the bottom and two sides, and the interior is cushioned with protective foam. Bean fires up an electric drill and screws wooden cross bars firmly in place for added strength.
The job takes patience, a steady hand and meticulous attention to detail. “The work suits me,” Bean says. Soon the crate will be carefully wrapped and safely stowed on a nearby shelf.
It’s early May, and he and others are working in a large windowless gallery space in the former Snite Museum of Art. This is the packing room, where the museum’s treasures are being readied for the short move south — about four-tenths of a mile — to their new home.
The Snite Museum, which opened 43 years ago adjacent to O’Shaughnessy Hall, closed its doors to the public forever on April 29. Notre Dame’s new Raclin Murphy Museum of Art is scheduled to open in late November near the south edge of campus.
In the meantime, art enthusiasts may visit the collection virtually by using Marble, an online teaching and research platform.
The museum staff is engrossed in documenting and preparing the collection for the move, which will occur in mid-June and take about a week. The preparation area encompasses four former Snite gallery rooms set up like an assembly line.
In the first room, museum registrar Victoria Perdomo and her staff are examining and documenting the nearly 1,000 art objects that will be moved to the new facility. Each item is photographed, and a written description details the condition and whether repairs or conservation work are required. Thick binders contain the information, which also will be added to a computer database.
(The University museum’s entire collection includes nearly 30,000 objects, some of them in long-term storage at an off-campus warehouse.)
The second room is the conservation area, where some repairs are made. The third is a photo studio, where each object is photographed from numerous angles.
The fourth room — the packing area — is the largest and busiest. It looks like the back room of a big box store, with tidy rows of labeled shelves along two long walls. It contains work stations, wood for crating, heavy duty cardboard, bubble wrap, protective foam and other supplies.
This workspace is an eclectic artistic mix. A Renaissance painting might be in line for packing, just before a 19th-century Mexican crucifix and right after a Roman flask dating from 400 A.D. Nearby, a 20th-century tabletop kinetic sculpture by George Rickey waits its turn.
Each protective carrying case — typically of wood or cardboard — is custom crafted for a specific item in the collection. “Each object brings its own set of challenges,” chief art preparator Ramiro Rodriguez says.
Paintings usually are wrapped in protective sheeting, then bubble wrap, then nestled in cardboard containers. Each box is labeled with a sticker identifying the object, the artist, the medium, its estimated creation date and color coding to indicate its destination. “We can tell at a glance which gallery it’s going to,” Rodriguez says.
Some of the most challenging objects to move will be the largest ones — such as “Laocoön and His Sons,” an 18th-century Italian marble sculpture that weighs about a ton.
Rather than chronologically, the galleries in the new museum will be arranged thematically. A 19th-century work by a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi might be displayed next to a contemporary Native American textile, for example. Thematic displays are becoming a popular approach in museums today, Perdomo says.
The new museum — still under construction — is at the northwest corner of the Charles B. Hayes Family Sculpture Park, just across Angela Boulevard from Eddy Street Commons. The site was selected to be easily accessible by the campus community as well as the general public, with convenient parking nearby.
The Raclin Murphy Museum initially will include about 70,000 square feet of gallery and teaching spaces, a sculpture court, a chapel, a book shop and a cafe. Eventually a Phase 2 project will increase the museum’s size to about 132,000 square feet.
The new museum is named for the families that provided the lead gift for its construction: Ernestine Raclin and her daughter and son-in-law, Carmi and Christopher Murphy ’68, all of South Bend.
The former museum has been renamed the Snite Research Center in the Visual Arts and will be open to scholars and students by appointment after January 1, 2024. Some of the collection will remain in storage at the Snite because storage space is limited in Phase 1 of the new museum.
The moving process involves many coordinated efforts that must proceed in sync, like an intricate dance.
The museum staff of about 25 started preparing for the move in May 2022. In recent months, some of the Snite galleries began closing — one by one — but the larger galleries remained open until nearly the last day of spring classes.
“We didn’t want to close down one minute earlier than we needed to,” says Joseph A. Becherer, the museum’s director. He’s providing monthly video updates about the new museum’s construction and progress toward the move.
When Raclin-Murphy opens, visitors will see many old favorites that had long been on display in the Snite — including the large 19th-century painting “Roll Call of the Last Victims of the Reign of Terror” by Charles Louis Lucien Muller and works by Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović.
In the new museum “there will be a lot of the hallmarks that anchored the galleries here,” Perdomo says. “But our curators will also take the opportunity to introduce new items that haven’t been on view.”
Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine.