The newest staff member at the Museum of Fine Arts doesn’t have much of an eye for aesthetics, which makes him a bit of a peculiar addition to the renowned institution.
He didn’t attend a fancy college where they teach students about art appraisals. And he won’t be able to differentiate a van Gogh from a Degas, or an oil on canvas from an ancient Egyptian bust.
But he does have this: a keen sense of smell that could help officials at the museum keep its many exhibits, both new and old, from going to the dogs.
Riley, a Weimaraner puppy, was recently acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts on a volunteer basis to detect insects and other pests that might be hiding on existing or incoming collections at the gallery.
Seemingly harmless moths or bugs have the potential to damage certain types of artwork, like textiles, wood, or organic materials.
And Riley will be tasked with sniffing them out — once he has been properly trained, of course.
“We have lots of things that bring, by their very nature, bugs or pests with them,” said Katie Getchell, chief brand officer and deputy director of the Museum of Fine Arts. “If he can be trained to sit down in front of an object that he smells a bug in, that we can’t smell or see, then we could take that object, inspect it, and figure out what’s going on — that would be remarkable in terms of preserving objects.”
The museum has existing protocols in place to handle any potential infestation issues before they arise, but bringing Riley into the fold will offer an added layer of protection, she said.
“Pests are an ongoing concern for museums,” Getchell said. “It’s exciting to think about this as a new way to address the problem.”
The arrival of the floppy-eared pup with the oversized paws and droopy eyes, marks a first-of-its-kind initiative for the museum. Getchell said she’s not aware of another institution using a dog for similar work. Riley’s assistance is being billed as a pilot project, as they get a sense of his effectiveness.
While the idea of a puppy at the museum might give art lovers more incentive to visit, Riley will mostly work behind the scenes, meaning he won’t be spotted by those walking through the galleries on a daily basis.
His scent training, which will take place with his owner, the museum’s head of Protective Services, will begin in the next few months.
“If it is something that works, it’s something that other museums, or other libraries, or other places that collect materials that are susceptible to any kind of any infestation like that could use as another line of defense,” Getchell said. “That would be an amazing outcome.”
The American Kennel Club describes the breed’s demeanor and personality traits as “fearless, friendly, and obedient,” and notes that Weimaraners — males can weigh anywhere between 70 to 90 pounds when full grown — are always “eager to please.”
“The Weimaraner is a graceful dog with aristocratic features,” the website says. “Bred for speed, good scenting ability, courage and intelligence, he remains an excellent game hunter and active participant in other dog sports.”
Sue Thomas, who owns Rhode Island-based Camelot Weimaraner and has been breeding the dogs for 40 years, said they’re known for their olfactory capabilities.
“Anything that is determined on ability of sense of smell could be done with them,” she said. “I think they’re smart, and I think they’re very trainable.”
Although Riley is still very young, that sort of untapped potential could bode well for the museum and its mission.
“It’s a fun way to think about how we might be able to improve our care. That’s why we are here, to care for and share these works of art,” said Getchell, of the MFA. “If we can do that through an adorable dog, it’s pretty awesome.”
Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.