Carey Hedlund

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Stop and Smell the Roses

Friday, November 7th, 2014

GHSMS_waste3Long ago, when it was snowing a lot and often, Alina Josan and I spent eight weeks at the Germantown Historical Society.  The majority of our time at GHS was spent with the records of the Germantown Theatre Guild, but at the outset we worked on a much smaller project, the (very) Small Manuscript Collection.

This collection was made up of a smattering of many things. Full of treasures, but usually only one or a few records concerning an individual, family or organization. The legacy decision had been to collect these items together into a catch-all collection and we were foldering the records and creating an inventory. As we worked our way through these disparate pieces, I remembered a question that Christiana Dobrzynski Grippe had asked during my interview for the Hidden Collections project, “Will you have any problem moving quickly through materials that interest you?” My answer was, “No problem—I’ve handled many interesting things in my career and I’ll be able to resist the urge.” Well, here’s to report, it’s difficult to glide by some things, without pausing to wonder! I’ll call it the inevitable minimal processing speed bump—you fly along, until you just have to stop and take a good look at something.

GHSMS_waste5The Small Manuscripts collection had a number of speed bumps, especially since foldering meant, in many cases, item level labeling. I noticed that Alina was riveted by some materials relating to Thomas Meehan (the 19th century botanist and nurseyman), but I resisted temptation until I encountered the Billmeyer waste books. The manuscripts were dated 1795, and while very handsome in themselves, with elegant handwriting on fine paper, they were fairly mundane account books representing “the mony, goods or debts owed to me.” However, on further inspection I noticed something special: Anna Billmeyer—perhaps a daughter, or granddaughter—had co-opted one book at a later date and used it as a sketch diary. Careful sketches and notes pasted on top of the accounting records reveal this well-educated girl’s world view: several pencil sketches of “Mr. Chew’s House,” a series of watercolor vignettes, maps of the South Pole, Bolivia, and “Ethiopia Unexplored Region,” a botanical watercolor of “The Drooping Lily,” architectural renderings with simple perspective diagrams, and pressed violets are just some of the things that Anna chose to document and preserve in the recycled Waste Book.GHSMS_waste9

I had to stop and admire. I had to stop and consider. I was drawn by the mixture of romance and smartness; the dreamy yet precise nature of this girl’s mind that was so clearly reflected in these drawings tucked into the back of an account book. So there you have it, no matter what your processing cruising speed or how short the deadline, sometimes the records simply deserve a pause, an extra few beats of inspection. No matter how many things you may have seen, no matter how many objects you’ve handled, you’re not immune to the allure of “The Drooping Lily.”

…A File By Any Other Name???

Friday, 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.

Why is a Museum Director like Indiana Jones?

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

While working with the records of Langdon Warner (Director of the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts, 1917 to 1923), we were struck first by the fact that Mr. Warner was far away from the Museum a good deal of the time: December 1917 through January 1919. And struck next by the interesting places that some of his correspondence was from. When in residence at the museum, his correspondence reveals that he wandered still: scattered amidst his administrative correspondence at the Museum are reports of archeological expeditions in the Middle East and Asia, photos of artifacts from far flung locations and reports of Bolshevik activity in Siberia.

With some time left the following week, we became curious enough to do a little exploring ourselves. If you Google Langdon Warner the first thing you find out is that almost everyone mentions him as a model for the character of Indiana Jones. We had to admit, the photos bear a distinct resemblance …

Langdon Warner and Indiana Jones. Striking, no?

Langdon Warner and Indiana Jones. Striking, no?

Warner became the Museum’s Director while relatively young, but his interests in Asian art and archaeology were already well established. While a student at Harvard University he traveled to Russian Turkestan with the Pumpelly-Carnegie Expedition in 1903. He traveled to Japan in prior to becoming the associate curator of Asian art at the Boston Museum of Art (1906 to 1913), and he was Director of the American School of Archeology, Peking, directly before coming to Philadelphia. While on leave of absence as the Museum’s director, his travels with a Smithsonian expedition were interrupted by the Russian Revolution and he was recruited as the United States Vice Council in Harbin, traveling extensively as the liaison between the State Department and Czechoslovakian exiles.

After leaving the Museum, he taught at Harvard University, became the Curator of Oriental Art at the Fogg Museum of Art and he participated in many other projects related to Asian arts and traveled an estimated 18 times to Asia.  Apparently quite modest, he was, however, highly influential as an educator and scholar, very well respected, and an entertaining and dedicated correspondent.

Photographs of artifact acquired and excursions made by Warner.

Photographs of artifacts acquired and excursions made by Warner.

Warner has not escaped controversy. Early discovery and collection of artifacts by Western scholars and archeologists has come under scrutiny and many now consider the actions taken by these early collectors as damaging, as well as ethically questionable. If Warner was indeed involved in such activities, it would certainly be balanced by his later work during World War II; as a “monuments man” –one of over three hundred other museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects, and educators–he was tasked with the mission of protecting cultural treasures in harm’s way. Warner is specifically credited with taking actions that protected the cities of Nara and Kyoto during the Allied bombings of Japan in 1946 and this work reflects his very real concern for the preservation of cultural heritage sites. Warner died in Cambridge, MA, in 1955; after his death Japan awarded him the Order of the Sacred Treasures.

All in all, maybe better than a movie…

“Are not pond scum and pistache green somewhat similar?”

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Written by Carey Hedlund and Alina Josan.

Our first assignment for the Hidden Collections project brought us to the archives at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), where we worked for four months. We began by processing the Edwin Atlee Barber records. Barber was an early curator and director at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art while it was still located in Fairmount Part at Memorial Hall—only later called PMA with the move to the Museum’s current location.

A man of detail, wisdom and wit, Barber wore many different hats in his work and was a detailed and attentive correspondent. In a letter to Morris Carter of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Barber outlined his responsibilities:

DSCN2444“Secretary of the Corporation and various committees, Acting Curator of all the twelve departments of the Museum; arrange and install all of the collections, prepare all of the labels for printing; edit the Museum Bulletin and Annual Report, and prepare for publication all of the Guides, Handbooks, catalogues and Art Primers; conduct the Bureau of Identification of Art Objects; collect the annual Membership dues; act as Superintendent of the building and have direct charge of the guards and all other employees.”

As the Curator and Director of the Pennsylvania Museum Barber was directly involved in the minutiae of everyday operations, writing often to the Fairmount Park Commissioners of such things as leaking roofs and missing floor tiles, plumbing and heating malfunctions, and untamed landscaping.

From the files of the Commissioners of Fairmount Park:

Mr. Oglesby Paul, Landscape Gardener, November 19th, 1903

“My dear Mr. Paul:-

I hope you have not forgotten about the vines on Memorial Hall which were to be pruned at the proper time. If that time has arrived, I hope you will be able to give the matter your attention…”

No issue involving Museum staff was too insignificant for his attention:

Mr. Jesse Vogdes, Chief Engineer and Superintendent, December 4, 1907

“My Dear Sir:

Mrs. Hamilton, in the Woman’s room, needs a new uniform, as she appears to have had none for two years. Will you please send me an order on Wanamaker’s…as follows: Four collars, No. 14; four pairs cuffs, No. 8; four aprons; one dozen caps.”

Barber’s administrative correspondence is lively and occasionally divisive, and it documents the early formation of the Museum’s collections. His correspondence with John T. Morris, especially, reflects their shared passion to build a world class collection.

July, 29, 1911 

“My dear Mr. Morris:

I have your letter of the 28th…and I thoroughly agree with you in many of your statements, and I would be very glad indeed to buy modern work, provided it is as good or better than the ancient. To buy it simply because it is modern, however and is not in good workmanship as the old, does not appeal to me. I agree with you that the best and rarest pieces..should be procured for the Museum at any price…”

And, all the while, his negotiations with donors were carefully tended. After agreeing to exhibit a donkey cart, a handful of letters between Barber and the donor, trace a discussion about the option of also borrowing the donkey harness. Barber tactfully concedes that a donkey may not be necessary:

The donkey cart.

The donkey cart.

Mrs. Richard Waln Meirs, May 28, 1913 

“My dear Mrs. Meirs,

We would be very glad, indeed, to place on exhibition the harness belonging to the Sicilian cart which you kindly lent us recently. This has attracted so much attention that I think it would be greatly improved by using the harness also. To be sure, we have not a stuffed donkey to use it on, but our carpenter can make a frame which will show it to good advantage. If you care to lend this to us, we shall take the best care of it and it will, of course, be subject to you order anytime.”

While attending to the day-to-day management of a museum and school, and an active publication and exhibition schedule, he also maintained an active correspondence with scholars and collectors, particularly in his chosen specialty, ceramics:

Mr. Thomas Clarke, New York, September 24, 1910 DSCN2449

“My Dear Mr. Clarke:

On my return from Europe, I find the memorandum which you sent to Mr. Kent of the Metropolitan Museum…

Is wet tea leaf brown similar to the tea dust soufflé glaze? Can you tell me the difference between dragon’s blood and pigeon’s blood red? Are not pond scum and pistache green somewhat similar?

I hope to be able to get in to see you some time when in New York, in the meantime, I shall thank you for enlightenment on these points.”

Barber held several long, collegial exchanges with expert craftsmen, notably Henry Mercer Chapmen and Taxile Doat. Towards the end of his life, while preparing an exhibition and the publication of “Fakes” and Reproductions Barber corresponded with both men. With Mercer he debates the qualities of “legitimate reproductions” and he consults with Doat, drawing on Doat’s earlier experience as a master craftsman at Sevres:

December 29, 1911 IMG_5350

“My dear Mr. Doat:

I saw yesterday a large cylindrical jardinière…The dealer who owns this values it at $900, although in my estimation it would be dear at $9…Thanking you for any facts you may be able to send me…”

These are just a few of the things that we found as we processed this. Researchers with more time for discovery and examination would, no doubt, uncover many more interesting treasures.