This blog post will be the first in a series that examines the relationship between museums and archives. In this series, we will look at who the archives gatekeepers are, how the Brooks is diversifying and re-examining our own archives, and most importantly, how we steward forgotten or overlooked histories.
When a museum staff member thinks of the word stewardship, we often think of our donors and members. Stewardship is a word I am constantly reflecting on as the museum’s Donor Relations Manager because it is my job to build relationships with our patrons and members. But museum stewardship touches more than just the people who walk through our doors. Stewardship also extends to our collections and archives.
In Archival scholar Rebecka Sheffield’s 2016 article “More than Acid-Free Folders: Extending the Concept of Preservation to Include the Stewardship of Unexplored Histories,” Sheffield considers that, “information professionals are pushed to reconsider our concept of preservation as something more than placing records into acid-free folders or migrating data to stave off obsolescence, but as a duty to steward unexplored histories.” A museum collects objects, ephemera, and artwork that, when reviewed in relation to one another, tell viewers a story or piece together an art movement. These stories or visual histories become the way readers and viewers interpret history, specifically though the lens of the artist whose work they are viewing.
Installation view of vernacular photographs in "A Journey Towards Self-Definition"
To understand how these histories are documented, I met with our Assistant Registrar Maria Ferguson. Maria received her MA in art history from the University of Memphis and has been with the Brooks since 2016. She’s warm and soft spoken, and from Zoom I can see her colorful home gallery of art work. “Registrars keep records on all the objects. This includes location and movement, where it is in the museum at all times, whether it’s on view, and if it leaves the museum,” Maria explained when I asked her to define what a registrar’s role is. “But we also create a history of the object.”
When an object enters the Brooks’ collection, Maria creates an object file folder which includes provenance, exhibition history, dimensions, condition report, and any writing that has been done on the object. Maria pulls her information from curators’ research, but then she will dig deeper. This often involves investigating things such as previous auctions of the object or emailing donors of the object for more information. “The most important information we need is the tombstone information,” Maria said. “This is the most basic information about the object. As we’re getting ready for our move downtown, we are beginning to collect lists of everything we have and categorize them.”
Maria likens her work to that of a detective who is trying to find as much information and data about an object as possible. One project she is particularly proud of archiving is a gift of three large collections of vernacular photographs donated by the New York collector Peter Cohen . Many of the photographs in the collections are by unknown Black photographers, some of which are on view now in the exhibition “A Journey Towards Self-Definition: African American Artists in the Permanent Collection.” It’s taken several years and three interns, with the assistance of curators, to document all of the photographs in the collection. This is still a work in progress, and one the Brooks is very dedicated to completing. When asked why it is important for the Brooks to have these photographs, Maria’s response was simple: “It’s because the canon of art history doesn’t include these vernacular photographs.”
When we think about this void in the canon of art history, it is important to consider why works such as these, which document the creativity of artists from diverse backgrounds and cultures, was excluded for so long. Scholar Elisabeth Kaplan argues that “we are what we collect” in her 2000 essay, and because of that Scheffield adds, “Archives must be proactive in developing strategic actions that make space for underrepresented groups in archival work, and as a corollary to develop collaborative approaches to preserving unexplored history.” Once we begin exploring these histories, it is also important to decide who acquires the objects, who can view the work once they are in collections, and how we categorize them. Categorizing and documenting objects is crucial when reporting unexplored history.
Another installation view of "A Journey Towards Self-Definition"
Furthering this point, I want to draw attention to an article “A Black Power Method,” written by N.D.B. Connolly, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University. Connolly states: “Who gets to become an archivist, how archives get organized, and even what counts as an archive have a profound racial impact on what endures as valued historical research. Expansive, digital archives can still be locked behind paywalls or library turnstiles at elite universities. Brick and mortar archives stand in racially segregated parts of town. In the most concrete ways possible, racial politics determine how we locate the past.”
Connolly expands on this point by writing that institutions determine “which records are to be destroyed, excluded from the archives and thus from all these subsequent archival processes and enhancements, thereby effectually removed from societal memory, from the ‘archive.’”
Oftentimes in archiving, marginalized groups are “othered.” “The idea of ‘otherness’ is central to sociological analyses of how majority and minority identities are constructed. This is because the representation of different groups within any given society is controlled by groups that have greater political power,” writes Dr. Dr Zuleyka Zevallos, a Peruvian-Australian applied sociologist. When researchers first began archiving LGBTQ histories, for instance, most organizations were not in the habit of saving ephemera such as buttons, protest signs, or bar coasters, even though as Scheffield writes, these items “are often the only remaining evidence of early queer and trans cultures.” Instead, community organizers and activists were often the ones with the foresight that these items would be important as time marched on. For this reason, it is important to note that both museum archives and library archives succeed when there is community involvement. An archive is an exchange between communities and cultural institutions. The Brooks serves the Memphis community not just by stewarding the art and our members, but by stewarding the history surrounding the objects.
Back on Zoom, as Maria and I dug deeper into how archiving is important for revealing uncharted history, she mentioned that perhaps the reason she loves the exhibition currently on view, Native Voices, 1950s to Now: Art for a New Understanding, is because “for so long Native American artists have been represented as the Other, but with this exhibition they have their own platform.” The platform is given when the Brooks uses its influence as the oldest and largest Mid-South art museum to amplify voices of Indigenous artists. For this exhibition, contemporary Native American art and voices are front and center.
Collections rarely begin in museums, though. Collections are often brought to museums by people like us, people who have a deep appreciation and interest in the preservation of history. Most important: Collections begin with communities. It is within our attics, our storage units and our community centers that we hold the future of collecting. In these fraught times, now is the moment to begin preserving your own history or to turn your attention to an artist or community you feel deserves newfound attention.
If you are overwhelmed at the thought of beginning your own personal archive, Maria suggests taking it step by step. “If you have several large boxes of photographs, make a goal to sit down and go through one of them per day. Look for dates, names or any clues that give you signifiers of where a photograph came from. Write them down. Then do your own research through Google,” she suggests. “There is a motto my grandfather used to have: ‘There is a place for everything and everything goes in its place.’ That’s how I live my life and I try my best to be meticulously organized.”
It’s important to remember that everyone has a history, and if we don’t document our own history it will be lost. But it’s also equally important that individuals and institutions begin collecting and saving mementos, ephemera and objects that will be useful to tell our stories years from now. Some collections begin simply from traveling from flea market to antique shops and collecting photographs.
When the historians look back at 2020, what will they see? What can you save to show the mark we left on this generation? We are in the midst of a pandemic and a new civil rights movement. What do we want future generations to know about this moment? I think about these questions often. Save the Instagram stories that gave you helpful tips to stay safe at a protest. Save your buttons you bought at Pride. Don’t throw away your sketchbook from this summer. Save your journals. History is happening now, and one day, a museum like the Brooks will need to hear your voices.
Donor Relatoins Manager
Learn more about our collection in the Collection Highlights catalog, available now at the Visitor Services desk.