by Alice Kim
Jessie Petcoff and I have become best friends. She has no idea who I am, of course, but I have devoted five hours a week for nearly 13 weeks on getting to know her, going over her old files, hunting through her old loan forms and insurance claims and various contracts, even reading her old letters. As an intern this semester for the Registrar’s office, the Nasher Museum of Art has made me, Alice Kim, History of the Museum Detective.
Jessie Petcoff was the Registrar for the museum in the 80s and early 90s. Back then it was known as the Duke University Museum of Art (DUMA), then located in the Friedl Building on East Campus. Much of her work, and the work of the museum staff of that era, paved the way for the museum we now so proudly call the Nasher Museum. One of my primary duties this semester has been going through her exhibition files, one by one, and piecing together the who, what, when, where, why, how of it all and logging said information into the digital records we keep today.
I feel very fortunate to have been given this spectacular opportunity: I have been afforded a first-row, first-class ticket to see the art scene at Duke unfold. Our museum exhibition history, by the way, is pretty incredible. I’ve read through Jessie’s letters and admired her fancy signature, got to witness her sweet-talking, sweet-charming ways after the fact, and how the staff managed to snag an Alexander Rodchenko photography exhibit in 1985 and even how Jessie managed to wrangle a letter of appreciation from the Dalai Lama in 1991. I’ve read through the special delivery requests and loan conditions and wondered at the special treatment a crate of artwork can get on an airplane. I’ve also read the somewhat passive aggressive letters people will send to Jessie when the artwork handling is not quite up to snuff, and noted her always calm, always cool, always collected responses. I’ve seen the hand-drawn flyers and the typewritten invitations. I’ve also seen the photographs of the opening nights and cringed at the hair and make-up.
The most rewarding thing I’ve been privy to so far: looking through the records for the very first exhibitions and seeing how far we’ve come since then: a new building, a new name, a fabulous Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters exhibition up on the walls now, exciting new exhibitions just around the corner. We’ve built upon the hard work and diligence of incredible people who had a vision for what the art museum could be, and we continue to grow and expand and evolve everyday. I wonder if there’ll be another intern in another 30 years, looking through the records I’ve helped create today, and wanting to be my best friend and cringing at my cool kid clothes.