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MUSEUM ARCHIVIST, Volume 11, Number 2

Newsletter of the Museum Archives Section



The Knoedler Archive and Library
Melissa De Medeiros
Knoedler Gallery

Preserving Love's Labors in the Museum Archives
Maureen Melton
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Beyond "Just in Case" -- Appraising Museum Records
Deborah Wythe
Brooklyn Museum of Art Archives

The Knoedler Archive and Library

This article originally was published in The Rise of the Art World in America: Knoedler at 150 (New York: Knoedler & Company, 1996), an exhibition catalog celebrating Knoedler & Company’s 150th anniversary. The Archive is open to researchers by appointment. Contact Melissa De Medeiros at 212-794-0567 for more information or to schedule an appointment.

The Rise of the Art World in America: Knoedler at 150 marks the first public presentation of the Knoedler Archive, even though the artifacts on display represent only a tiny fraction of the millions of individual items carefully compiled by Knoedler & Company since 1863. The Archive includes sales records, stock books, provenance records of all works handled by Knoedler, records of restoration and framing at the gallery, an extensive photographic archive, and correspondence with artists, clients and other galleries. The Archive was also drawn upon for research on the loans from the collaborating museums, and to everyone’s delight new information about a number of works in the exhibition was discovered during this period.

In documenting the gallery’s 150-year history, the Knoedler Archive provides an unparalleled record of the emergence and flowering of the American art world. Through the Archive one can trace the parallel trajectories of art connoisseurship, the growth of the art market, the appreciation of America art, and the building of the great private and public collections across the country.

The Knoedler Archive also provides a unique perspective on the social history of the nation. It reflects the economic growth of communities, shifts in taste, and even the evolution of America’s cultural sense of place within the world. Above all, the Archive gives insight into the civic-minded patronage that led to the founding of great museums across America.

A number of catalogues on display in the exhibition have been drawn from the Knoedler Library which comprises more than 60,000 volumes. The library’s holdings include many early auction, gallery, and museum catalogues and is considered to be among the finest art historical libraries in private hands in this country.

The Knoedler Archive has been a priceless resource to museums across the country because many of the works in their collections can be traced back to Knoedler. It has also garnered a reputation among scholars as an indispensable resource for original research, catalogues raisonnés, and major exhibitions. It has recently been drawn upon for the 1996 exhibition Winslow Homer organized by the National Gallery of Art and Whistler and Montesquiou: The Butterfly and the Bat, held at The Frick Collection in 1995.

Despite its daily use by scholars, the Archive is still largely untapped as a resource. Virtually every visit reveals exciting correspondence and other material that sheds new light on America’s cultural heritage.

The archival portion of this exhibition honors years of dedicated service by generations of Knoedler librarians without whom this exhibition would have not been possible. In particular, I am indebted to my mentor and predecessor, Nancy Little.

Melissa De Medeiros
Knoedler Gallery

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Preserving Love's Labors in the Museum Archives

The following is the text of a speech presented in Providence, Rhode Island, at the annual convention of the Art Libraries Society of North America. An edited version of this presentation was published in the ARLIS journal, “Art Documentation," Volume 15, Number 1.

After agreeing to speak on this ARLIS/NA program, I learned that the session was entitled "Love's Labors Lost." Since the word “lost” is a bit of an anathema in the archival lexicon, I prefer to retitle it "Love's Labors Carefully and Permanently Preserved and Made Available to the Scholarly Community." I realize that this title is a little cumbersome, but as the archivist of an art museum, that is one of my top priorities: to insure that important records documenting exhibitions are carefully preserved for current and future researchers. And, in order to properly explain how and why these records should be preserved, I have to describe briefly how and why they are generated. We have to examine the anatomy of an exhibition in order to plan its archival fate.

To begin at the beginning, where does an exhibition start? Well, often in the imagination of a curator who is particularly learned or interested in a subject. At the MFA, there are eight curatorial departments, each of which has many staff members, interns, and supporters who contribute to a very creative climate for the generation of exhibition ideas. The chief curator of each department usually has the difficult task of choosing which ideas will be developed into full and formal exhibition proposals.

At many museums, after the curatorial staff has selected the subject matter for a potential exhibition and written a preliminary proposal, that proposal is reviewed by a museum administrative board or officer whose duties include overseeing the exhibition activities of the institution as a whole. At the MFA, curators present ideas for exhibitions to our director, who plans the exhibition schedule and accepts or rejects proposals for that schedule.

Approval of an exhibition proposal at the MFA begins what is always months and often years of exciting and demanding work that at some point will encompass almost every department in the museum. And the end result, hopefully, will be a visually beautiful and intellectually rich event for visitors to enjoy. It is during this transition from idea to reality that most exhibition records are created, documents that eventually will be preserved in the archives.

Once an exhibition is approved and placed on the schedule, an intense period of scholarly research begins. Artistic genres, historical movements, and cultural trends are examined. The lives and works of artists are closely studied through the use of printed materials as well as original documentation when available. In their capacities as research centers, the museum archives, library, and photographic services department are usually consulted during this phase of the project.

Another crucial aspect of curatorial research involves the objects selected to illustrate the intellectual themes of the exhibition. Curators search their own departmental holdings, as well as those of other museum curatorial departments, for objects that will illuminate the exhibition concept. The difficult work of tracing object provenance and identifying works of art in the collections of other institutions and individuals for loan requests continues. If the show is of sufficient size and scope to warrant a catalogue, the curatorial staff prepares catalogue entries as well as the important introductory, summary, and descriptive texts that reveal how the objects chosen fit into the intellectual framework of the show.

As the exhibition's opening date draws closer, the pace of curatorial activity is feverish. But fortunately, curators are not working alone. Many other departments have joined the cause. When funding from outside the institution is needed to mount a show, the development staff makes proposals for financial support to local, state, and national funding agencies, as well as to corporations, foundations, and private charitable organizations. The registrar's office carefully documents the arrival and departure of all loaned objects. The conservation staff completes object condition reports and provides restoration and preparation services when needed. The photographic services department produces or acquires photographs of all exhibition objects for the catalogue, for public sale, and for publicity purposes. They also verify credit lines and manage copyright issues. The publications staff designs and edits the exhibition catalogue. The design department plans appropriate settings for the display of objects. The education staff prepares brochures and pamphlets to enhance the visitor experience, as well as writing or reviewing interpretive labels and text panels. The library staff makes related materials available to visitors, updates the citation index for museum objects, catalogues the exhibition publications, and distributes publications to exchange partners.

Throughout this entire process, the financial staff tracks income and expenses. The public relations staff works to develop public interest and excitement through carefully orchestrated advertising and publicity campaigns. The buildings and grounds staff is responsible for most of the physical preparation of the show: they paint the walls, lay the carpet, and hang or mount the objects. Other public service departments, such as the restaurant, retail shop, and special events office, coordinate their menus and sales items for the anticipated rush of exhibition viewers. Those who work in museums know that the planning and implementation of an exhibition involves an amazing amount of time and effort. And, not surprisingly, it also involves an amazing number of records.

From the time the first proposal is drafted until the last acknowledgment is received, the records documenting an exhibition are active, that is they are needed on a continuing basis by the office that creates them. But once a show is over and a few months or years have passed, the interest and need of most departments for those exhibition materials lessens to the point where they can be considered inactive, rarely used. In a museum without an archives, this is the point at which loves labors begin getting lost. When there is no longer a frequent need to refer to the records of a previous exhibition, people have a tendency to begin moving those documents around to make room for new materials. That is when records are boxed up and stuffed onto shelves in the back room, relegated to old file cabinets, or worst of all, banished to dreaded attic and basement storage areas. In order to insure that exhibition records, as well as other vital museum documents, don't get lost in the space crunch and shuffle, a museum records keeper is essential.

At the MFA, some departments are strident about cleaning out their files quickly, calling almost before the ink has dried on exhibition records to request that documents be transferred to the archives. Other departments treat their records more like a fine wine--they like to age them for a very long time in the warmth of their offices.

Both approaches are perfectly valid and reflect differing work habits of the staff. Some departments, especially curatorial ones, do often refer to older records, using research materials from one exhibition to help plan another. Other departments have little need to keep records of completed work. While some archivists do establish retention schedules detailing how long records can remain in departments before being transferred to the archives, I prefer to let the departments decide how long they feel they need to keep exhibition records in their office. I do not see an advantage to forcibly removing materials that a department wants to retain. By working with the staff, by providing the service and access they want when they want it, the archives can become a friend and ally to each department. As long as the staff is aware that the archives is waiting to take their exhibition records as soon as they no longer need them, and as long as the archives staff knows which departments are holding onto their exhibition records and why, this cooperative approach can as effective as a standardized records management schedule, while allowing flexibility and engendering good will.

There are a few guiding principles that should be followed in organizing exhibition records once those materials are in the custody of the archives, and a brief look back in time will help explain how and why those principles developed.

In the 19th century, the bad old days of archival practice in this country, museums, like other institutions in America, valued records mostly for their current administrative use. As a result, early museum records were often routinely discarded when they were no longer needed by the staff who created them. Their potential historical value was seriously underestimated. Even when records were retained, they were often organized in ways that made using them at a later date quite difficult, if not impossible. Materials were arbitrarily grouped together in subject orders devised by well-meaning staff and usually accompanied by some Byzantine system of identification, the purpose and key to which were almost always lost over time.

By the 1920s and 1930s, things were looking up on the archival front. Museum workers were beginning to understand that their records might have enduring historical value, so staff began preserving documents more carefully. At the same time, record keepers across the country were starting to realize a fundamental flaw in arranging archives by subject matter alone. It finally occurred to archivists that if files created by different departments were arbitrarily removed and then joined together in some unholy alliance by subject matter, one could easily lose sense of who originally created the records and why, thus sacrificing the ability to understand the mission and activities of each administrative unit. That loss of departmental wholeness was what eventually prompted archivists to understand that it was crucial first to organize records according to the office that created them, and then to develop subject access points as intellectual cross-references rather than by physical integration of materials from different administrative units. Thus American archivists came to accept what their European colleagues had been practicing and counseling for several decades, and a basic tenet of archival practice was adopted, complete with a French accent--"respect des fonds," respect for the office of origin.

Of course, this important change in archival policy has had a major impact on the organization of exhibition records. If we were playing by the old rules, when records documenting the exhibition-related activities of any museum department arrived in the archives, those materials could be separated out from the rest of that department's records and placed into an all-inclusive, museum-wide collection documenting a specific exhibition. To use a recent example from the MFA, it would mean that the records documenting the activities of all 37 MFA departments for the Monet exhibition would thus be joined together into one giant Monet subject collection. However, we don't play by those rules anymore. Archivists have to be concerned with more than just exhibition materials. We have to protect the integrity of all the museum's records. In order to accomplish this, we have to insure that all records received by the archives are organized and permanently preserved according to the office that created them.

Since exhibition records created by different departments do not arrive in the archives at the same time, and will not be integrated into exhibition subject collections, you might well ask how archivists keep track of what exhibition records have been transferred to the archives, what records need to be preserved, and where to store all those documents.

Archivists have to be adept at creating systems and procedures to accurately track the transfer, accession, disposition, and storage of records within the repository. The good news for financially constrained institutions is that these procedures do not necessarily require sophisticated technical equipment. Transfer authorizations, accession registers, record inventories, and location guides, some of the tools of the archival trade, can be handwritten, typewritten, or entered into a computer database. Of course, the ability to easily amend, update, and share information concerning records does increase dramatically if an archivist is lucky enough to have a PC or access to an institutional or external computer network.

After records are accessioned, the archives staff faces a range of organization, preservation, and storage challenges. In order to properly prepare records for permanent preservation, a series of steps are taken to "process" the records. During the processing stage, documents are removed from the acidic file folders and boxes in which they usually arrive, and then paper clips, staples, and other harmful items are removed. In addition, original documents are separated from acidic materials, such as news clippings and photographs, for their mutual protection. This can be accomplished by using acid-neutral envelopes and other special materials for separating or interleaving. Each folder is also evaluated to determine whether there are photocopies, duplicates, or other repetitive materials that may be discarded. Once the files have been carefully culled, the records are transferred into acid-neutral folders and boxes for permanent preservation.

While the archives staff physically processes records, they also conduct an intellectual evaluation of those materials. If the department of origin has organized and transferred records in a clearly defined order, that order will be retained. If records arrive in no discernible order, an order will be established for them, usually an alphabetical, chronological, or subject arrangement. As records are processed and organized into logical groupings, known as record series, a careful list of the titles of each folder in each box is made. This box and folder list, along with notes about the provenance, arrangement, scope, content, and accessibility of the materials, constitute a finding aid to each record series. If and/or when the records are opened to the public, these finding aids are the starting point for researchers seeking access to any record series, the archival equivalent of the library card catalog. In archives that have access to computer equipment, more sophisticated finding aids can be created for internal databases, or a MARC-AMC series level description prepared for submission to bibliographic networks such as RLIN or OCLC.

While each record series is unique, there are often similarities and overlaps between groups of records received from different departments, especially when records document an institution-wide event such as an exhibition. That is why during the intellectual evaluation thought is given to what each series has in common with records previously received from the same and other departments. In the case of exhibition records, multiple copies of documents may have been preserved and transferred to the archives by several different departments. Sometimes these duplicates can be discarded. For example, the public relations department at the MFA regularly preserves a copy of all the press releases it issues to promote an exhibition. As a courtesy, they usually also send copies of those press releases to the curator who organized the show, for informational purposes. Subsequently, when curators transfer their exhibition records to the archives, duplicate copies of press releases are often found. Since the creation and distribution of press releases reflects a function of the public relations office, the duplicates in the curatorial files are usually discarded, since we know that the public relations staff has retained a record copy in their files.

Sometimes, however, multiple copies of records are retained for research purposes because the duplicated records reflect important functions of more than one administrative unit. At the beginning of my presentation, I described how at the MFA curators create exhibition proposals that are then presented to the director for approval. Curators almost always keep copies of these proposals in their files, copies which eventually come to the archives along with the rest of the curatorial records documenting that exhibition. The original proposals, which have been sent to the director, also eventually arrive in the archives, along with other records created or received by the director concerning exhibitions. A case could be made for discarding the curator’s copy of each proposal and retaining only the originals in the director's files. Researchers could be referred to the original through a cross-reference. (These intellectual cross-references can be recorded manually or on a computer database, depending on what equipment is available.) Despite the fact that there is duplication, I usually retain both the original and the curator's copy because these proposals reflect an important joint function of two museum departments. Keeping a copy in the records of both offices insures more immediate access to these critical documents, and thus helps researchers more easily understand the mission and activities of both departments.

If you find these examples a little confusing, you're not alone. Archivists get confused about these issues all the time, and this is our profession. I could easily describe dozens of other problems arising from the issue of when and why an archivist chooses to keep certain documents and discard others, but I won't. Because the bottom line is that there are no hard and fast rules, no uniform and universal codes that effectively govern every aspect of how exhibition records should be preserved. Instead, we rely upon shared philosophies and some general yet flexible guidelines that can be adapted to deal with problematic records issues. Like all my colleagues in the field of museum archives, I hope that as a result of my education and training as an archivist, and after years of experience on the job and interaction with museum staff, I have come to understand the process of planning an exhibition well enough so that I can effectively preserve the records which best document that process and thus insure that loves labors will never be lost.

Maureen Melton
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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Beyond "Just in Case" -- Appraising Museum Records

Invitation to a Museum Archives Section working group at the Art Institute of Chicago 1:00 - 5:00 PM on Wednesday, August 27, 1997

Does your museum archives appraisal policy sometimes come down to "let's keep it just in case"? Do you keep records, or do you select them? Is your storeroom about to burst?

Most museum archives are relatively new and our universe of records is relatively small (compared to, say, government archives). It sometimes seems easiest and most prudent to keep just about everything and, as a result, appraisal has gotten short shrift. We usually have a collections policy and records management schedule, but rarely any well-thought out appraisal policies or procedures.

As museum archives mature and grow, appraisal becomes more and more important. We usually keep most or all of Director's files and curatorial records, but others are more problematic. How should we handle records that span several departments and may involve significant duplication? If there isn't a central exhibitions office, how do we handle the records overlap among departments dealing with various components of an exhibition? Does the Registrar's Office handle all object documentation, or is some scattered in archival records? What to do with grant proposals and related files? Are marketing and product development files significant enough to keep in their entirety? How should we document public programs? What about catalog drafts and working papers?

The working session will consist of discussions on developing appraisal policies and procedures for records specific to museums. Our goal will be to gather the results of our discussions into an article for Museum Archivist and possibly publish them as an official SAA "white paper." We will also report to the Section at the Chicago meeting.

Participants should have experience working in a museum's institutional archives and be willing to spend some time doing background reading and thinking about the topic ahead of time. There is a limit of 25 people for the group, so we ask that you register in advance with the form below. A reading list will be sent to participants.

Looking forward to seeing you!

Deb Wythe

Return (ASAP!) to: Deborah Wythe, Brooklyn Museum of Art Archives, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11238

Name and job title:



Telephone and email address:

Please summarize your experience working with museum records and note any types of records that are of particular interest or concern. Would you be interested in leading a portion of the discussion? On what topic? (keep going on another sheet if you want to!)

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