As the art historian and associate curator for outreach at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, Caitlin McGurk works with a special collection of over three million pieces of art located at the Ohio State University.
“A special collection is essentially an archive that collects around a special topic area,” McGurk said. “Our topic area, of course, is comics and cartoon art in all of its forms.”
McGurk’s virtual lecture on Wednesday, titled “Collecting & Exhibiting Comics,” is part of the McMullen Museum’s Museum Current lecture series and is a complement to the Museum’s current exhibition, American Alternative Comics, 1980-2000: Raw, Weirdo, and Beyond.
McGurk spoke to students and faculty interested in the world of comics, informing them that the Billy Ireland Museum aims to preserve this underrepresented art form.
“All of our material is clipped but kept at an environmentally controlled archive … at a steady temperature and humidity monitored at 24 hours a day,” McGurk said. “It’s a very high-security archive. You need swipe access to get back there, which only a few people have.”
Part of the reason that the museum features such high security precautions is that the general public does not pay the kind of attention to comic art that it deserves. The library even struggles with visitors being confused about why certain pieces of art have been saved and preserved.
“Since this is an art form that has not long been treated with a tremendous amount of respect, and people often don’t know what to do with it, a lot of it has been lost to history,” McGurk said.
Because of the lack of knowledge about comic art, uninformed owners have thrown away or destroyed thousands of important comic artifacts, McGurk said. The gap in awareness is part of the reason why the museum puts so much effort into education—not just exhibition.
The institution’s facility includes a digital imaging lab that adds to an image database on its website, as well as a classroom space and 300-seat theater in which the museum’s educational programming takes place, McGurk said.
Though located at OSU, the museum is passionate about accessibility and welcomes visitors from all over the country.
“Our museum is completely free and open to the public,” McGurk said. “It’s one of the only free museums in Columbus where we’re based.”
With the funding and material donations that the museum has received over the years, the facilities transformed into a state-of-the-art museum that includes three galleries.
The Treasures Gallery is the museum’s permanent collection gallery that features a selection of exceptional artworks and artifacts. It highlights the breadth and depth of the museum’s collections.
“It’s basically a greatest hits exhibit,” McGurk said. “It changes over only every few years.”
The museum’s two other gallery spaces are home to themed exhibits that change incrementally, hosting up to six exhibits per year that represent a wide variety of themes and goals.
“We are really proud to have what we believe to be the biggest representation of original art by trans and non-binary cartoonists,” McGurk said.
The museum has also curated exhibits that tell the story of the civil rights movement, highlight the perspective of Jewish women, and demonstrate the lives of prisoners on death row.
Billy Ireland, a self-taught cartoonist from the early 19th century and the museum’s namesake, had the ability to take comic art, a style that is usually regarded as serving merely entertainment purposes, and make powerful statements that have the ability to deeply change the way the general public perceives comics.
“We’re one of the first institutions in the entire world to actually create this long-disrespected art form with the respect that it actually deserves,” McGurk said. “It’s really important to us that we kind of broke ground with changing the perception of it.”