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…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.

We’re back! Bootcamp, processing, and progress so far…

Friday, April 4th, 2014

New project team during minimal processing bootcamp at the University of Pennsylvania.

Hello again! Time has flown by, and we’re just getting the blog started again by recapping the current PACSCL/CLIR Hidden Collections Processing Project of 2013-2014. I assumed responsibilities of Project Manager in August 2013 and it’s been a whirlwind of activity from the very first day. I had to quickly assess and plan how we would minimally process 46 collections containing materials from the 18th to 21st centuries, all specifically related to Philadelphia history. Processing will require us to process at a rate of 4 hours per linear foot at 16 different repositories over the course of one year.  In addition to 12 veteran participating repositories, we welcome four new institutions to the project, including two non-PACSCL members. With this project, we hope to refine, confirm, and better establish guidelines for applying minimal processing to a wide range of collections and types of institutions and creating high-quality finding aids for our ever-expanding collaborative site.

Surveying at Germantown Historical Society.

Surveying at Germantown Historical Society.

As you may recall, this project builds upon the predecessor processing project lead by Holly Mengel and Courtney Smerz from 2009 to 2011. Having served as one of the processors on that project, I began my work as Project Manager already very familiar with the “PACSCL” methods and approaches established by the first team. My familiarity with these approaches, along with additional archives management experience, gave me a bit of a running start, but I immediately found that I have my work cut out for me. More about the challenges and lessons I’ve learned so far will be chronicled in later posts.

In August, I quickly got started by surveying the collections selected for the grant that had not been surveyed previously by the fabulous PACSCL Survey Initiative Project. I followed and expanded upon the guidelines already previously established in earlier projects to assess these new collections. In September and October, I was able to assemble a fabulous project team of six processors and one assistant, who all attended the bootcamp training week designed to establish a good overview of the PACSCL approaches to minimal processing and the Archivists’ Toolkit. After training, I assigned pairs of processors to our first three repositories (Temple University, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Union League of Philadelphia) to kick off the year’s-worth of processing work ahead of us.

First day of processing at Temple University.

First day of processing at Temple University.

Already with many challenges and successes along the way that will be detailed further in the coming weeks on the blog, we hit our six-month mark this week right on track! At our halfway point in the project come mid-April, we will have processed an approximate total of 762 linear feet for 22 collections in 9 repositories, at an average rate of 3.45 hours per linear foot. Please stay tuned as we continue to add more frequent updates about our progress, lessons learned, and interesting finds!

MPLP is good for your health!

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Unknown size: small.

During the summer, Holly and I tackled the Marketing and Public Relations Department records at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives.  This was a great collection for MPLP and, if I heard Holly correctly, we processed the collection in under 2 hours per linear foot!

According to Susie Anderson, the Museum’s archivist, this collection gets a lot of use, especially internally.  Before processing, the collection was difficult to use because it was accessioned in so many chunks over time that information on particular subjects, artists or exhibits were literally in dozens of boxes.  With no proper finding aid there was no way for Susie to know where everything was, and pulling all those record cartons off the shelf for every reference request was kind-of a drag too.

To get the job done, Holly and I commingled several alphabetically arranged subject files into one system, relabeled files and created our finding aid.  Now, for the most part (I’ll admit, we were not able to collocate everything), files on particular topics, people or events are arranged together and there is a folder level finding aid.  With any luck, Susie will only have to look in one or two record cartons to find what she needs and be satisfied that she has found it all!

After processing this collection I can verify that pulling over-stuffed record cartons on and off the shelf all day long hurts!  I don’t mean to sound like a total wimp (OK, I know, I sound like a wimp), but I feel for my fellow archivists who deal with packed record cartons on a daily basis and wonder, is that good for you physical health?  Well, maybe it isn’t bad for your health per se, but lifting those cartons on and off shelves over and over again certainly increases your chance of on-the-job injury.  At least now, thanks to minimal processing, researchers at the Art Museum can conduct more targeted searches in the Marketing and Public Relations Department records, and that means less heavy lifting for Susie.

In case you are wondering what’s in the Marketing and Public Relations department records, I can tell you, there are lots of interesting things.  There’s information on the Museum’s marketing strategies for special exhibitions and documentation of outreach efforts and events going back to the 1960s.  The collection is loaded with photographs (making boxes all the more heavy) of featured works of art and Museum events.  Snapshots taken during exhibit openings and other events were especially fun, offering lots of evidence of 1980s fashions in particular.


Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Unknown size: small.

Dr. Stella Kramrisch, the curator of the Indian Art Department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1954 until her death in 1993, exerted a deep and lasting influence on the field of Indian Art scholarship and collecting. For those who are unfamiliar with her life and work, her obituary from the New York Times offers an overview of her life and accomplishments (and, of course, our finding aid includes a fabulous biographic note). She was a force to be reckoned with in the art museum world, a cat lover, and a one-time hyena owner. If you are ever in the PMA’s Indian and Himalayan Art galleries, take a moment to check the provenance of the objects on display. About 2/3 of them were either acquired by Stella Kramrisch while she was curator, bought with funds in her name, or were part of her personal collection, bequeathed to the museum after her death. Clearly, the PMA would not be the institution it is today without her.

Processing her papers presented unique challenges for an MPLP-based processing style:

  1. It had previously gone through the hands of at least two people: an intern in the PMA’s Indian and Himalayan Art Department who had subject knowledge of Indian art and scholarship, and a project archivist at the PMA.
  2. The materials dealt with by these two people were separated in to two distinct chunks (located on opposite sides of the processing room, even).
  3. The project archivist and the intern described and arranged these parts of the collection to different degrees. The intern did not have archival training, but had enough subject area knowledge to write out very detailed folder titles (which were both helpful and problematic for MPLP!) and identify photographs. There was, however, no folder-level arrangement. The project archivist wrote an excellent inventory and arrangement suggestions, and labeled some of the sections of records with paper inserted into the record cartons. She left all materials in their original order, as they were when they were transferred from the Indian and Himalayan Art Department.
  4. Due to the importance of Dr. Kramrisch to scholars from various fields, this collection had been accessed many times between its transference to the archives (piecemeal starting in the mid-1990’s) and our processing. Biographers had pulled materials from their original folders and relocated those documents into new folders to better suit their research and writing needs.  And those are the alterations we know about.

Unknown size: small.

My processing partner, Christiana, and I were a little apprehensive before we waded in, expecting that reconciling the contrasting arrangements of two chunks of Stella’s papers would be time consuming and frustrating. We feared that the existing organization created by the intern wouldn’t work for the collection as a whole, and that we would need to pull the contents of those boxes apart while doing some serious interfiling and hefting of record cartons. We found, however, that we could largely keep those series and that the materials from the Indian and Himalayan Art Department would either fit into those or could be put into new (small-ish) series of their own.

We did, however, keep these groupings of materials in separate subseries. For example, there were materials processed by the intern and art department materials that fit into a “Writings and research notes” series. But rather than interfile these records, we put them in two subseries to preserve the distinction between the kinds of processing they received. We thus saved ourselves an awful lot of time that would have been spent interfiling and (I think) made it clearer to researchers how much the materials two subseries had been interfered with, thus making it easier for them to know what to expect when they open a folder.

Unknown size: small.

For me the most challenging aspect of this collection was dealing with folder titles written by someone with lots of subject knowledge, but no archival training. It was time consuming to reword someone else’s titles – which he had put hours of research into – and wrangle them into something that could be alphabetized in a subject file subseries. Titles like “Manuscripts and correspondence on a book on death that SK and Anindita Balsev were going to co-author” or (my favorite) “POPULAR WISDOM !?!” might contain useful information, but aren’t in a format that’s useful to archivists.

But the challenges combined with the opportunity to learn more about Stella Kramrisch made this collection incredibly rewarding to work with. The collection actually seems very similar to Stella herself: full of information, very valuable and obviously loved, but at times difficult to work with.

What makes a collection “interesting?” Two processors, two opinions, one collection

Monday, August 8th, 2011

Unknown size: small.

My partner, Sarah, and I just finished processing the “FOCUS: Philadelphia Focuses on Women in the Visual Arts” collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives this week.  FOCUS was a two-month long city-wide arts initiative in Philadelphia in 1974 that emphasized contemporary feminist art and was run by a group of volunteers comprised of artists, teachers, staff at the PMA, and other local art enthusiasts. This was a wonderful little collection of records (just three linear feet to start with!) that created an interesting dynamic for us as we wrapped up our processing.  Part of the finishing touches we put on each collection includes determining and assigning a “research value” for the materials.

Unknown size: small.

The value is calculated on a scale of 1 to 10, which combines a topical interest ranking value with a quality of documentation value.  To help determine these values, we ask ourselves questions such as: How frequently have recent researchers sought materials on topics substantially documented in this particular collection? How rare is the collection’s documentation of a particular topic or topics? How extensive is that documentation and how deep or detailed is it? Is there anything missing from the documentation, such as certain important year spans or key figures?

This routine project activity receives neither much attention nor time compared to our other responsibilities, yet it remains one of my favorite tasks.  It is a satisfying way to synthesize what I have learned about the collection after immersing myself in it.  It also tends to generate enjoyable discussions or even friendly debates.  FOCUS was one such collection about which Sarah and I differed slightly in how we wanted to evaluate it. We both could see the obvious value that the collection has and agreed on the quality of documentation value being “rich” or a 4 out of 5. This was because despite the relatively brief existence of the FOCUS initiative, the deliberate documentation of programs and events by internal committees makes this collection an especially comprehensive and robust representation of the group’s activities.

Unknown size: small.

Sarah and I differed in opinion concerning the overall interest and appeal of the topics in the collection. I felt that the collection’s interest value should rate a 4 out of 5 (or “high”) for several reasons. The records most likely would entice individuals and researchers interested in feminist art movements, local Philadelphia history, grassroots community initiatives, non-profit collaborative activities, the grant writing and application process, and even censorship in art.  (The collection documents a rather delicious scandal concerning the banning of Judith Bernstein from the Philadelphia Civic Center’s art show because of her “overly sexual” charcoal drawing entitled “Horizontal.”)  Sarah thought that the specificity of the materials may alienate some users and information about the specific artists is probably duplicated elsewhere, so the collection’s appeal would not be quite as far-reaching or widespread outside of the Philadelphia community; as such, the value should only be “moderate,” or a 3 out of 5.

Unknown size: small.

While neither Sarah nor I could convince the other that her opinion was best, we ultimately concluded over an amicable snack of tea and cookies (outside of the archives of course!) that it was perfectly fine to disagree. We simply documented in our worksheet that we each felt differently and explained our reasons why. Being able to work independently as well as collaborate with colleagues is one of the true benefits and strengths of this project. Maintaining a dialog with others who view the same work in a different ways helps me to further develop and explore my own opinions, as well as to better understand how other users may approach archival materials.  In turn, being exposed to so many amazing collections with this project allows for examination of the on-going question: Why do we as archivists chose the materials we do to be included in the archives?