…A File By Any Other Name???

Written by Carey Hedlund on May 16th, 2014
Letter found in Boggs' correspondence.

Letter found in Boggs’ correspondence.

Archives coursework doesn’t prepare you for the fact that legacy file names may have multiple personalities. Local naming conventions sometimes resemble nicknames rather than a folder title relevant to a future researcher.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art we found a number of opportunities to wrestle with this. In a museum there is the added challenge of the exhibition process itself: exhibitions may start with a conceptual title (French Decorative Arts), move through a development phase with a shorthand title (the “Exchange” exhibit) and then, often after several years, finally end up with a formal title (such as, “The Second Empire: Art in France under Napoleon III”). We found a great example of this in the Jean Sutherland Boggs records and the Directors’ Exhibition records, where we encountered many different file names for an exhibition that was ultimately called “Manifestations of Shiva.”

In the Boggs records, the early files discuss an India exhibit, and the documentation is mostly in files associated with the curator, Stella Kramrish, and filed under K. As the exhibit developed, it was filed under Shiva or Siva, and documents are filed under S.

We agreed to defer to the spelling of the deity’s name preferred by Kramrish, an authoritative scholar of Indian art and mythology. “Siva” was what we stuck with until we came across a 1980 memo addressed to all PMA staff from the director’s office addressing what had evidently been an ongoing conversation at the time too. Jean Sutherland Boggs herself had spoken and she said:

Memo from Boggs regarding the spelling of "Shiva".

Memo from Boggs regarding the spelling of “Shiva”.

“Dr. Kramrish has decided, with my approval, that we should spell the god, “Shiva”. From now on, it will be Manifestations of Shiva”

And so it was for us too.

The legacy files didn’t really became more consistent. Ultimately, as the exhibition process progressed, the formal name of “Manifestations of Shiva” was used more often, and although the legacy system still had many files in the S location, now files were in the M run as well. We successfully avoided the impulse to create a false consistency—and, in the end, felt that the many-titled folders actually tell a story of their own.

The PMA Directors’ Exhibition records has traditionally organized exhibitions by their opening date and then by their formal exhibition name (so for the above, the primary location is 1981 March 29, and the files read “Manifestations of Shiva”)—working titles are always changed to formal exhibition titles in this collection. As an additional finding aid, the Archives maintains a master list of preferred exhibition titles and their opening dates.

Publicity materials for Manifestations of Shiva.

Publicity materials for which Shiva exhibition?

However, a puzzle, related to the “Manifestations of Shiva” files, appeared in the Directors’ Exhibition records where we encountered “the ‘Exchange’ exhibit,” often interfiled with “Manifestations of Shiva” materials. At first we thought this meant that “Manifestations of Shiva” became a loan exhibit, but a little research uncovered the fact that an exhibit called “Masterpieces of Modern Art from the Philadelphia Museum of Art” was an exhibition of paintings from the PMA collection sent to India in exchange for the loan of significant artifacts for the “Manifestations of Shiva” exhibition. In this case, we did correct the folder titles to meet the policy of filing exhibitions by formal name.

In a way, the changing name of this exhibit provided a perfect storm for the way naming conventions in legacy collections can be a fluid and sometimes messy challenge. As Alina and I discussed this we noted that one of the greatest benefits of creating an electronic finding aid for this type of legacy filing system is the magic of keyword searching—offering the possibility of finding resources no matter the number of different file names they may have accumulated.

 

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