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Capturing the Collections: Photography for MOA’s Catalogue and Publications

Left to right. Devil masks. By Elber Nahuincha (Peru), c. 2008 (MOA Collection 2946/14, 2946/13, 2946/15); Maker unrecorded (Peru), c. 2011 (MOA Collection 2946/8). Photo by Alina Ilyasova.

If you were to stop by MOA’s digitization studio on any given day, you’d find me photographing objects from MOA’s vast collection. Those objects could range from intricate Japanese miniature silver utensils to large textiles from the Pacific Northwest. Most of the time I work by myself, and occasionally with a colleague from the Collections Care and Access department who helps position and move the large or fragile objects.

The digitization studio is located in the lower level of the Museum, near the object storage rooms, and is equipped with state-of-the-art photography gear. Almost all the objects that enter MOA’s collections will eventually come through this space to be photographed. The resulting images will be linked to the object’s catalogue record, and eventually most of them will be added to our online collections database, referred to as the MOA CAT. I photograph each object from multiple angles using a high-resolution Hasselblad camera. The large image size allows MOA staff, as well as MOA CAT users, to digitally zoom in to study the objects closely.

Alina Ilyasova gets creative in the digitization studio. Photo courtesy of the MOA Collections Care and Access department.

MOA’s digitization program has been running since 2006, and has produced over 101,000 images. Over 94,000 of these images are currently available to the public online through the MOA CAT. The images and records in the MOA CAT are primarily used for research purposes, as well as by museum visitors who use the in-house MOA CAT stations to learn more about the objects displayed in the Multiversity Galleries. Artists working in their home communities, for example, can use the images to see the inside of a mask or the backside of a textile—views that can give much information about an object’s function and the techniques used to make it. The images are also available through the Reciprocal Research Network (commonly called the RRN), which is a digital research portal to Northwest Coast Indigenous collections located in about 30 museums and cultural centres worldwide.

As with most museums, there are more objects in MOA’s collection than can be publicly displayed, so a substantial percentage of the collection is stored behind the scenes. Digitization allows almost the entire collection to be accessed online, reaching people from around the world who otherwise might not be able to visit MOA. I also photograph pieces from the collection for books and other publications produced by MOA staff. I find such photography interesting as well as challenging: it allows me more creativity in approach, and yet each project comes with parameters defined by the book’s subject matter and intended visual aesthetic.

In the diagram below, you can see the stepby- step process that’s involved in tackling one such project. Some publications require over 100 final images to be produced, requiring many more images from which these are chosen; the photography for one publication can take several months to complete.

Photography workflow diagram. Courtesy of Alina Ilyasova.
MOA Collections Assistant Kaitlyn Chamberlain helps positions objects during a photo session. Photo courtesy of the MOA Collections Care and Access department.

A number of other staff members are involved in this process with me. After the curator finalizes their list of images, it is thoroughly reviewed by MOA’s Collections Manager, Collections Coordinator, Conservator, Mount Maker, and myself. The condition of the objects is assessed to see if any require conservation work, and a realistic timeline is calculated for execution of the entire project. The safety of the collection is our top priority. We need to make sure that the objects are in stable condition and can withstand the stress of being handled during photo production, since they are sometimes suspended by wires or held at a specific angle on a mount. Throughout most of this process, I work with a handler who retrieves objects from the museum storage and brings them in and out of the studio as we progress. They also help with object placement for the images and act as my assistant, sometimes testing their contortionist skills in order to find the right position to hold up lights or support objects—anything for the perfect shot!

For the forthcoming book Theatrum Mundi: Masks and Masquerades in Mexico and the Andes by MOA’s Director, Anthony Shelton, I photographed a number of masks that really appeared to come to life when we suspended them from above, positioning them in the same manner as if worn by a person. This was a time-intensive process to showcase objects—one that required particular attention from the Conservation team. That said, such photography is well worth the effort as it brings out an object’s three-dimensional qualities while providing me more options for perspective and lighting. I’m honoured to be a part of MOA’s dedicated Collections Care and Access team, working hard to preserve and make accessible these cultural objects for future generations.