Handling art and archives is one man's campus dream job

Tom Hunter was working in a General Electric warehouse in 1993 when he heard about an intriguing opportunity at the University of Alberta. His wife, who worked for the Métis Nation, told him there was a new practicum program for aboriginals called Libraries, Archives and Museums (LAM), launched by the extension faculty.

Apart from some art classes he’d taken as a child in Cold Lake, Hunter admits he knew next to nothing about caring for art, books and historical artifacts, and his LAM instructors were brutally honest up front about his prospects once he finished the course.“They didn’t let you look at the world through rose-coloured glasses,” says Hunter. “They said, ‘You’re training in a field where there’s hardly any jobs for someone with your credentials.’”

But he threw himself into the intense, 50-week training course and finished with flying colours. He landed a short-term, casual placement with Cameron Library, searching the titles of book donations to see if they were already in the library system. It paid about half what he had been making in the warehouse, and for a brief period, it had him wondering if he’d made the right career move.

Museums and Collections soon acquired enough money to make Hunter a contract offer in 1995, which turned into a permanent job, and he’s never looked back. For the past 15 years, he has been the man responsible for the overall care and preservation of the university’s art collection as well as a good portion of its historical artifacts.

“Once I started doing it, I realized this is what I want to do. I’ve never aspired to become a curator,” says Hunter, whose official title is collections assistant. He has also done a stint as president of the Alberta Museums Association.

“I like the hands-on part of my job. I get to interact with people and handle art and the artifacts. And I know people all over campus, from [Provost] Carl Amrhein to the B-Clean cleaners staff. And if I don’t know the answer to something, there is always someone on campus who does.”

Hunter’s work is varied, interesting and challenging. He keeps up on the best ways to handle, move and store all sorts of artifacts and has moved the main art collection three times. He also does condition reports on pieces donated to the university and determines the best way to care for them.

The key, he says, is moving slowly and methodically, treating everything with the same care and respect. “I handle artwork that’s worth millions of dollars, and also work that’s produced my master-of-arts students. Just because it’s a $200 piece of art doesn’t mean I treat it any differently than the million-dollar piece. They both need the same care, regardless of the value.”
On certain days you might also find Hunter where perhaps you’d least expect, crawling around in the ceiling of the Telus Centre or Tory building. That’s because he’s also responsible for making sure hyper-sensitive climate systems are working properly in areas that house some of the U of A’s more valuable collections.

Last year, Hunter had a chance to explain his job to elementary students at U School, a senate-sponsored program that brings inner-city kids to campus for a week of immersion in university-related activities. For him, it was a moment of pride.

“They brought in aboriginal students,” said Hunter. “To show them an aboriginal person can do this job is important. But I also tell them it’s not all white gloves and glory. Sometimes I need to mop up water or climb up into ceilings to look after air-conditioning units.

“I tell them, ‘Look at all this stuff I get to touch every day.’”