Years ago I wrote an article (issue 186) for Fine Woodworking Magazine about documenting a piece of furniture in a museum. It actually was meant to help open doors with woodworkers at local historical centers and gain access to furniture that might otherwise be off limits. I did receive feedback from a curator at the Yale University Art Museum
praising my methods. Something interesting happened behind the scenes that never made it in print. The local historical center we used in the article was very strict about picture taking, touching, even breathing around their collection. During the camera shoot the caretaker let his cat loose since visiting hours were over. It was an overweight tabby that looked sort of like a seal with legs. Kitty proceeded to climb up on a chair back and circle the room. She strutted across the back of a settee, overtop a piano, and across a desk. Without letting her delicate claws touch the floor she finally came to rest on an upholstered chair that had a tape across it to keep galoots like me from using it. Obviously rules don’t apply to cats.
Now I actually approach exploring a furniture piece a little differently than I did then. Now I’m more interested in uncovering proportions than documenting every dimension. Today I might take a few views with a digital camera but instead of gathering a series of dimensions with a tape and tranfering them to a drawing, the information I’m after is collected on a story stick. I use a thin strip of poplar and make tick marks with a sharp pencil along the edge that align with elements on the piece. It’s quick accurate and best of all, the poplar story board is great for useing dividers to smoke out the proportional scheme underneath a design. It allows non-invasive exploratory surgery with sharp divider points while doing no harm to the patient.
I do this also with pictures of furniture. Instead of damaging the glossy pictures by walking all over it with dividers, I transfer the major boundaries on a paper story board and then use dividers to unlock the design. This is a great exercise to train your eye and help you to think proportionally.