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Fleming Museum Collections Manager Margaret Tamulonis Presents the Past in Fresh Ways 

Margaret Tamulonis has managed the 24,000-item collection of the University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum of Art since 1999. Having charge of such a vast assortment of objects might overwhelm some. But for Tamulonis, the job — inventorying the items, pulling them for display or educational purposes, ensuring their safety — is one unending learning opportunity.

“I like to say, ‘There are 24,000 research projects upstairs,’” quips the easygoing 42-year-old, referring to the three storage rooms of the Fleming that house most of the collection.

Tamulonis is dressed casually in pants and flats, her brown hair escaping its elastic. She stands in her downstairs office, a utilitarian basement room packed with shelves of manila folders and beige file towers. There she has reluctantly agreed to start a tour of her life as the Fleming’s manager of collections and exhibitions. “My office is really terrible, because it’s all paper!” she says apologetically.

Tamulonis is more at ease around the objects themselves, which give her plenty of opportunities for happiness. The museum’s holdings are staggering not just in number but in range — from fine art to obscure archaeological finds. The objects date from the present back to the 15th century BCE and come from around the globe. The collection is particularly strong in Native American — especially Plains — artifacts, as well as in works on paper and pre-Columbian objects.

Additionally, about 30 items are offered to the museum each year, according to Fleming director Janie Cohen. Tamulonis choreographs the multistage process through which they are vetted and then, generally, accepted.

The manager and her assistant, Nicola Astles, have been working for several years on creating an online digital catalog of the ever-growing collection. The result will be a public resource similar to those now offered by the American Museum of Natural History and other major institutions.

Casual and modest, Tamulonis is averse to acknowledging her own expertise — which is “encyclopedic,” according to her frequent faculty collaborator, UVM anthropology professor Jennifer Dickinson. Tamulonis prefers to praise others, including the Honors College sophomores who take the museum-studies class she co-teaches with Dickinson. “They always point out something new to me,” she marvels.

Meanwhile, Tamulonis neglects to mention two made-for-media moments in her 14-year tenure until the very end of the tour — and then discusses them only when pressed. Two years ago, she helped move the museum’s Egyptian mummy to Fletcher Allen Health Care for a CT scan; three years ago, she prepared to accompany Chief Medicine Bear’s moccasins to Montana for an ancestral family reunion. (The latter trip was canceled when “Bear,” as she calls the chief’s great-great-grandson, ran into funding problems.)

Tamulonis likewise doesn’t mention that she’s a grant reviewer for the Institute of Museum and Library Services or that she is chairing a panel on involving students in exhibitions at the upcoming New England Museum Association conference — national and regional accolades that Cohen cites without hesitation.

While Tamulonis may not tout her own achievements, she reveals her depth of knowledge as she talks about the current student-curated exhibit, “EAT: The Social Life of Food” — the product of last spring’s museum-studies class. Tamulonis and Dickinson came up with the theme of food’s social significance, and the former preselected most of the objects from the collection for the students to curate.

“It came out really beautifully,” she says, and adds, “I feel like there are a hundred more food exhibitions in the collection.”

“Margaret and I are such object-heads,” Dickinson says affectionately. The anthropology prof first collaborated with Tamulonis in 2010 after the two “got to talking about material culture.” They produced a small exhibit tracing the stories of Vermont women’s lives from the objects they used, pairing such items as a late-19th-century bassinet and an audio recording of a Franco-American lullaby.

Tamulonis also collaborates with Dickinson — who directs UVM’s Center for Teaching and Learning, a faculty development center — on helping other professors incorporate the museum’s collection in their curricula. She coteaches a second class, with lecturer David Houston, on museum anthropology. These projects also culminate in student-curated exhibits, with themes such as fetishes and travel and tourism.

Tamulonis’ fascination with anthropology goes back a long way. Born in Manhattan, she became hooked in high school when she interned with New York’s city archaeologist, a woman she credits with having “led me to material culture and the ways it reflects individuals and history. The cool thing is that I still get to do that today,” she adds cheerfully.

She went on to study anthropology and history at the College of William and Mary, summer-interned at the Museum of the City of New York, and worked after graduation as assistant registrar at the New York Historical Society before moving to Vermont in 1999.

Almost immediately upon her arrival, Tamulonis become the caretaker of the Vermont Queer Archives for RU12? Community Center, a Burlington-based advocacy organization for LGBTIQA Vermonters (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexed, questioning individuals and allies). She also joined the boards of other organizations and galleries and for a number of years has worked part-time on a master’s in history through UVM.

Tamulonis’ enthusiasm for her job has created an atmosphere of accessibility around the Fleming collection.

“From what I understand, they love having students come in and look at objects for their papers,” comments junior Cole Burton, a history and art-history double major who curated the late-19th-century pewter serving dish from China in “EAT.” After the museum-studies class ended, Burton interned with Tamulonis over the summer, and he has become something of a spokesperson for the food exhibit with local media.

In his work-study job as a Fleming gallery attendant, Burton sometimes sits in the Wilbur Room watching visitors examine “EAT.” “It’s really nice to see people spend time there,” he says.

Tamulonis is thrilled when she can kindle such interest. “Then we know we’ve converted them,” she says with a laugh. She particularly likes working with anthropology students because, she points out, “I can say, ‘This is what you can do with an anthropology degree!’”

Her current intern, Hilary Hilmer, is a senior anthropology and history double major. Hilmer says she first encountered Tamulonis when the manager pulled four Buddha sculptures for her sophomore class on legends of the Buddha in art. At that time, Hilmer and her classmates were allowed only to look at the carvings. One had been chiseled off a temple and then recarved to look like it hadn’t been pillaged, the student recalls.

Hilmer realizes now that those four samples represented a fraction of the Fleming’s holdings. “They have all this stuff,” she says. “And they allow me to dabble in everything.” Hilmer can handle the objects now; her job is to fill out detailed condition reports, complete with line drawings, on Native American pottery and baskets from the Southwest. Hilmer is clearly a Tamulonis convert: She’s hoping to spend a year working in a museum before pursuing a graduate degree in the profession.

Tamulonis generously allows us to peek into one of the three upstairs storage rooms where she and her team spend much of their time. “This is, like, restricted access,” she says, only half joking. After unlocking the room, she stops to enter our names and the time in a logbook, then heads down one of the narrow aisles of floor-to-ceiling metal shelving. The objects are attractively grouped on shelves, everything remarkably dust free.

Tamulonis stops at an arrangement of stunning Sri Lankan masks, which were the subject of a 2008 exhibit she curated. “I knew we had this great collection,” she explains, so she brought it to the attention of then-curator Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, who encouraged her to mount a focused exhibit. Tamulonis put the masks in the context of the exorcism dances for which they were fashioned.

An intricately carved ivory tusk on a shelf below catches our eyes next. With some conservationists predicting the end of elephants in our lifetime, the art object is a troubling sight. Tamulonis assures it has been vetted, adding, “One of my jobs is doing research on provenance and making sure we’re legally compliant.”

The far end of the room is filled with black, acid-free boxes of photos, printed artworks and other works on paper. Here Tamulonis mentions “how cool my job is.” Last week, she notes, she pulled a 19th-century print by John Audubon for one class and early-20th-century Lewis Hine photographs for another.

Now Tamulonis pulls out a box of Hine’s work and brings it to the already crowded side counter to open. “Oh, look, see? I’ll just have to move Andy Warhol to view Lewis Hine,” she jokes, carefully lifting out of the way an unusual photo portrait of the pop artist in drag. “I’m not an art historian, of course,” she adds, “but I’d never seen this kind of photo of him. These are some of the nice surprises we have.”

Inside the well-organized box of Mylar-sleeved photos lies an image of four elaborately hatted female mill workers. “Some of the girls from the Chace Cotton Mill, Burlington, VT,” reads a typed transcription of Hine’s notes from 1909. Tamulonis guesses that Hine himself developed the photo, but she’s more interested in the hats, noting that the image prompted a class discussion about mill-worker wages and how they might have been spent.

“This is why I love working in museums,” Tamulonis comments upon leaving the storage room. “To be able to respectfully work with objects from around the world is amazing to me.”

After winding through the processing room for new acquisitions, Tamulonis ends up in front of the Egyptian mummy. Purchased by founding curator George Henry Perkins in 1910, the preserved 14-year-old girl has long been “a star of the collection,” she says.

The mummy is also a good example of the balancing act Tamulonis constantly must perform between making the collections accessible and keeping them safe. When a fourth-year radiology resident at Fletcher Allen proposed in 2011 to update the mummy’s 1930s X-ray with a high-resolution CT scan, Tamulonis entered into long discussions with the doctor. The scanner could not be moved to the museum, so the 2700-year-old mummy would have to be carted to the hospital — after lying undisturbed for a century.

Jason Johnson, now a neuro-radiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, recalls some of those discussions by phone from his West Coast home. “There was a lot of talk about whether the benefits outweighed the costs,” he recollects, as well as “a huge amount of discussion about whether we would need security, and the logistics of moving the mummy. We didn’t know what the weather would be, for example … The worst possible outcome was that we could damage her.”

Tamulonis decided to leave the mummy inside the bottom half of her ancient wood coffin, and the Fleming’s exhibition designer-preparator, Jeff Falsgraf, built a bier for it. On the morning of the transfer, they placed this on a stretcher and carried it downstairs and out to Johnson, who was waiting with a gurney. Tamulonis, Falsgraf and Johnson then wheeled the mummy the few hundred feet to Fletcher Allen. Fortunately, the weather held.

In the end, the scan offered no additional information on whether the girl’s head injury was pre- or postmortem. But the technique Johnson used — heavily radiologic to produce images of unprecedented accuracy — was soon adopted by the Vermont medical examiner to better determine causes of death in children. The method has since changed coroners’ practices in many states, says Johnson.

The mummy was safely returned to her museum home, and somewhere in the collection lies a 3-D print of her skull.

Tamulonis ends our tour in front of a vitrine containing African artifacts, again curated by students. She helped those students choose the items, directed them to information sources and edited the in-depth labels, or “chats,” where the student group’s names appear in the final display. But Tamulonis’ own name is nowhere to be found.

The original print version of this article was headlined "History's Home"

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Amy Lilly

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Amy Lilly has been a contributing arts writer for Seven Days since 2007.

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