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:
“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.
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
“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
“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.