Behind the scenes: Art Museum library a trove of history
Even folks who spend a lot of time at Milwaukee Art Museum might have only the vaguest idea of what it takes to run such an institution and the amount of sweat, energy and attention to detail that goes into staging exhibitions.
That's why OnMilwaukee.com went behind the scenes recently at Milwaukee Art Museum and met the people who toil long and hard -- getting every last detail right -- so that Brew City can have a world-class art museum.
In this final installment, Milwaukee Art Museum librarian/archivist Heather Winter gives us a tour of the serpentine MAM library and archive, which is packed with all manner of treasures.
We begin in a storage area that has tight aisles lined with floor to ceiling shelving.
Heather Winter: I'll take you back to our largest storage area, which should kind of give you a feel of the kind of type of material we have, and then I'll show you some of the more interesting things. This is probably our largest storage area, and it reflects our collection, the museum's collection. We collect according to the artists we have and the periods that we cover (at the museum).
We have 25,000 books, approximately. We also have probably hundreds of thousands of auction catalogs. We have magazines, (as) you see here, from back from the '40s and '50. A lot of these are really, really rare materials because a number of these things include a lot of original works in them.
Probably the most fascinating recently are the museum's audio and visual archives. We are always learning, we are always researching cultural activities. (We are) a lively organism, I think. So what we have in here is 120 years of media. We have every type of format; we even have a record, an actual LP, of a lecture.
There are some lectures, there are some meeting minutes. So any type of media you can imagine, we have back here. We have an AV librarian.
OnMilwaukee.com: Is it unusual for things in the library to make it into the exhibitions as the Frank Lloyd Wright films have done? Do they tend to be used more for behind the scenes than for use in the shows?
HW: That is a great question, in general yes, but there are some interesting arenas where I think we are going to see that changing. This is our rare book collection. I should say the library has been part of the museum since 1916, so we have a fascinating rare book collection including this complete works of Rembrandt – a catalogue raisonne. It was completed in 1898. It was like a 10- or 15-year project. I'm going to pull it out so you can see it, because it's really cool. I put these things on exhibition in a case outside the library to give people a feel for all the type material we have. Its all heliogravure. An exhibition that we just recently had we used this book because it showed one of the artists that Rembrandt worked with. It was a sketch he had completed with this artist.
We have an artist book collection and then we have this reference collection.
OMC: Is that part of the library, the artist book collection?
HW: No that is managed by one of our incredibly talented curators who understands the aspects of artist books. One of the main things you may see is more information (in exhibitions) in book form.
Photography is one of those great areas. A lot of these materials are really rare. A number of them will have original prints in them but this is something that Lisa (Hostetler), the curator of photography, has been helping us to build up, so we can add some of these materials to the exhibition. Because this is one of the most important forms of communication for photographers from the '30, '40s, '50; this was their mechanism for communication.
OMC: How is it determined whether a book ends up in the library or in one of the collections that the curators maintain?
HW: An outside publisher did this and it's an edition book (so it's in the library). If there is original artwork in it, we may get the book and then the artwork remains in the collection. Artists' books tend to be pretty easy, but every now and then there can be a situation where we have to pop up and say, "we have to think about that."
OMC: In addition to the registrar's files, the library can also form part of the museum's institutional memory.
HW: Yes, (we have) an administrative history for the museum. Ideally, this is something we continue to work through because it's a lot of information. This should reflect the decision making process for just about anything that happened all the way back to the beginning, back in 1888. So artists' letters are in here, purchase discussions, who came to lecture – all of that information sits in here and we are coming up with ways to make that information much more accessible. We have, more and more, used the blog to get the information out. Because it's not as interesting to see it; it's the information on the paper that is more fascinating.
OMC: How are you guys actually doing that? Are you starting with box one, and determining whether each document is of interest?
HW: Well, actually, I do it with a staff of interns, and it's probably our strongest group that works through it. We have a huge staff of interns that come from the University of Milwaukee.
OMC: Are they are art students or library science students?
HW: Library science students. It's one of the top programs in the country, so there are a lot of really great competitive students there who come in and take the opportunity to help us work through this material and help us research it. Our challenge is to figure out ... all the different ways someone might find it useful. We have to figure out a way of indexing so anyone with a question about it can get to it.
Because it's the institutional archives and it's so monstrous, it's a long proces,s but it will create a standard in the field. It's a finding aid for certain collections within the administrative history, but it will be box lists, so we will know who the creator was, the year it's from, a little description of what's there. That should give us a heads-up where to look.
OMC: Will it be searchable at some point?
HW: It will be yes, a lot of it is on paper right now, which is not uncommon at all. It is an extraordinary amount of information that they are trying to pull together.
Oh, here let me show you ...
OMC: You caught me looking at that box of glass slides.
HW: Yes, as you should be. That is the behind the scenes component. This is actually really fun; we haven't gotten into this (yet). I can take them out onto the table.
I am going to grab some gloves from my office, and we can take a look at these. These are homes and buildings in Milwaukee from the late 1800s. In fact, we had a researcher here that said "this was my house." That is incredible. There are a million things here, and you happen to come across your house.
OMC: Are you on you way to preserving these in other formats, like scanned on the computer, so that the information on these fragile things does not get lost?
HW: One of the things that we do is getting the information out that we have these images. (It) helps us and everybody else take the next steps to do the research.
There are some of our great architects – (Alexander) Eschweiler, Alfred Klaas – you know these are the people that built the city.
OMC: These are pretty amazing.
HW: One of the things we find most useful while we do our research about the museum and its exhibition and the artwork are our press clippings. We have them from 1911 to current, by month. So, if there was an exhibition, if there was an event going on here, this is one way for us to look back and see public opinion, and how people were responding.
This is one of those places where when people want to know about the art, we can go back and see and get a little bit more detail. We actually solved, I don't know if solved a mystery is a really great way to explain it, but a woman contacted me – it is also part of my job that the public contacts me to say, "I have this work of art could you tell me more about it."
And the woman contacted me and said, "I was just looking at the exhibition at the National Gallery and I saw a painting with my grandmother's name on it as donor." Her grandmother was an incredibly wealthy donor and one of the major supporters of the Boston Museum of Art.
For this one piece to kind of slip through the cracks so to speak was quite shocking; she had no idea. Tarbell's "Three Sisters." And she had asked how it came here. We looked in the registrar's files, and what was the decision making process for it to have come here.
Sure enough, there was an article about how the Tarbell came to Milwaukee, and there was just these extraordinary connections Tarbell's mother had lived here at the time, Tarbell had been the teacher of the woman who collected the work of art probably 30 years earlier, It was just connection after connection.
Had we not had this article, it would have been a much longer road to follow how that came here. So, those are the kind of things we find that are useful and full of really interesting information, and we are using that to build the museum's exhibition history now and it's 400 pages.
We certainly didn't expect the museum to (have) been so prolific. And to be showing what they were showing was also very shocking. We are looking at ways to try to get that information out; like the blog for instance.
OMC: Is that going to be published? Or is that just for internal use?
HW: I don't know. We use it primarily for staff, our goal is to get it online, but again its one of those things that we are constantly working on, and then something will come up. So, it's a challenge to get it out there and also to communicate that it is a work in progress. That makes it exciting because otherwise our jobs would be pretty static.
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