An Archivist Circles Back to Henry Darger

Manuscripts of Henry Darger, American Folk Art Museum

As an archivist working with artist archives, one of my greatest sensitivities is ensuring that the logic of how an artist maintained his/her studio is recognized and preserved.  Best practices must include maintaining that logic when preparing the materials for transfer to an archival repository, be it a museum, academic institution, or foundation study center. Preserving original order is a basic tenet in archival practice, but not always recognized when an estate is handling an artist’s studio after the artist passes away. Preserving the structure of how an artist used and accessed their resources provides valuable clues to the workflow of the maker. read more

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The Magical Mystical Archives of Louis Vuitton

The Louis Vuitton exhibition, “Volez, Voguez, Voyagez – Louis Vuitton” installed inside the old American Stock Exchange building in New York City presents an absolutely stellar use of archival material. Leather lined exhibition cases with tiny brass tacks.  Venetian glass chandeliers. Wooden vitrines holding archival documents in sultry-lit environments.  The LVMH family tree elegantly silk screened on wood panels. It made me pine for limitless budgets to create installations for every archival collection on which I’ve worked over the years.  Imagine… with no expense spared. read more

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Sharing Wisdom in an Archives, a Strange Kinship

With each archival collection I process, another voice enters my head, along with another piece of wisdom.  Ideas from a long lost soul have landed in my hands, before landing in the hands of countless others.  This is strange kinship seeps into my consciousness.  A voice, a thought, an image from a distant time.

Advice, notes and doodles – written by Laurence W. Benét, uncle of poet Laura Benét, regarding how to manufacture the French-Hotchkiss machine gun. Guide to the Benét Family Papers, Vassar College

Are these errant pieces of mental marginalia I collect beginning to coalesce into one shared memory, hailing from all the collections on which I work.  Could there be such a think as an archival murmuration? A flock of ideas morphing into a particular spectacular pattern? read more

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List-Making – A Reccurring Art Form

List-making: a peculiar yet familiar inhabitant of so many archival collections. Umberto Eco loved list making.  So did Susan Sontag.  It is human nature — to create a list, to make a secret promise.  An inevitable reminder. A curious piece of wisdom requiring documentation.  I once processed the personal papers of a noted professor and pioneer in the field of cardio arrhythmia.  In that particular collection, there was an impressive volume of lists all containing the same repeating reminder: don’t forget to pick up pants. read more

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The Love Letter: Sharing Wisdom on a Curious Kinship

It’s fall, or leaning towards fall, and I’ve been thinking these days about the wisdom inadvertently passed on from any given collection of personal papers. As an archivist, I recognize my curious kinship with the collections on which I work … like the reader who stumbles onto marginalia wedged into the inner margin of a book page, I can’t help but read between the lines and imagine a back story.

These days, I’ve been immersed in a collection of love letters. I am working on companion collections held at Vassar’s archives and special collections library. Most archival collections generally contain only correspondence received by the collection’s donor. In the case of these two complementary collections of beloved faculty members, I am faced with the somewhat unusual opportunity of reading through letters from both author and recipient. read more

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Using Archival Collections as a Source for Creativity and Inspiration

The night before an impending blizzard landing in Manhattan felt like the perfect time to gather with friends deep in the bowels of New York City’s Municipal Archives.  The goal was to test out a creative writing workshop I’ve been pondering over this past year, which focuses on using archival material as a resource for fiction writing and visual art making. Our host was Sylvia Kollar, Director of the Municipal Archives, who conjured up extraordinary records for us to ponder together as a group.  In particular, we worked with selected Bertillion Cards pulled from a collection of early 20th century mug shots held within the city’s archives. read more

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My Italian Summer: Tracing a Family Tree in a Sicilian Archive

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In the day-to-day work life managing a variety of archives here in the NYC metro area, I recognize how easily I can forget the extraordinary meaning of this work for that occasional end-user who finds him/herself on a mission with passionate meaning. This was the summer my husband and I traveled to Sicily, with an intention to spend time in the homeland of both his parents – a trip that was long in the planning, and short in its hope to locate lost relatives during our brief stay. We were going on very little. A cell phone image texted to us from a Staten Island nephew – a faded image of a house that looked like every other house in Floridia and an image of two small boys standing arm in arm, from the late 1980s. How could this possibly mean anything? read more

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In a Library, Shelf Life is Literal

41d242_aef9080ee1f44a25a19f55f65b194252I visited old haunts in my hometown a few weeks ago and ended up floating through one of my favorites – Chester C. Corbin Public Library. I learned that time had finally taken its toll on this landmark. The peeling paint and tattered linoleum signaled that perhaps the end was near. I learned that after a few attempts to find a way to save at least the façade of this structure, it became clear to the architects involved that a full demolition and rebuild would be necessary. Chester C. Corbin Public Library will be disassembled at the end of this summer. I felt a huge surge of nostalgia upon hearing this news, and immediately began stalking its corners during my visit, documenting as much as my cell phone could capture. read more

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The Mystery of Mahler’s Unfinished Tenth Symphony

Carpenter's Rendition of Mahler's Tenth Symphony, Cubic Footnotes

The itinerant archivist moves from repository to repository, ushering documents of note from states of jetsam/flotsam – often brimming from cardboard boxes once holding bottles of Smirnoff – into a state of order and meaning. Papers are shepherded into acid-free folders and boxes, where even the most cursory “To Do” list, meandering thought, or errant postcard suddenly, and finally, becomes — an objet.

I am continually inspired by this process.

I am inspired both by the physicality of handling the material and providing insight into its contents, as well as, and perhaps in particular, the chance to have yet another conversation with a being who completed an extraordinary life’s work. There is always a curious backstory lurking there, beyond the apparent reason why an individual’s papers are being preserved in perpetuity. read more

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My Psychic Dollhouse: Period Rooms at the Brooklyn Museum

I thought I was just visiting colleague/archivist Deborah Wythe to discuss my on-going work on the Nancy Holt Archives, but then I stumbled into a familiar rabbit hole….

self portrait brooklyn museum

There is something indistinguishable about that very silent corner of the Brooklyn Museum, where with a single turn, one is set adrift into the darkened hallways surrounding the museum’s Decorative Arts/Period Rooms. It may take a year or two, but undoubtedly, no matter what show I come back to see, the siren’s song of those quarters lures me back into the surrounding passageways in that corner of the museum — and again, I am yanked away from time. read more

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