The archivist and custodian of a collection
is the business of finding order,
making meaning, and
knowing where things are.
As part of a CAS R&D project, Associate Artists have been exploring questions about how art can be collected, organised an shared. How might CAS artists make their individual and collective works accessible to future audiences? How might we choose to subvert the traditional notions of archiving and collecting? First though, it is necessary to better understand those traditional notions of ‘the archive’ and the ‘collection’ and examine our assumptions.
Dawn Evans arranged for three Associate Artists to visit The Ashmolean Museum on the 14th March. Established in 1683, The Ashmolean is the oldest public museum in Britain. It forms part of the collective University of Oxford. Many of its staff are lecturers within the various Colleges of The University of Oxford. During their visit the CAS Artists visited both the Western Art Print Room and the Eastern Art Department. Their intention during this visit was to learn from the experts: what considerations and practicalities must be taken into account when collecting and archiving works?
Artists notes (compiled)
by Dawn Evans and Maija Liepins
11.30 a.m Dr Caroline Palmer: Western Art. Print room
In order to access the Western Art print room at the Ashmolean, one has first to make an appointment. http://www.ashmolean.org/departments/westernart/printroom/
I had made an appointment for three of us, the room itself is quite restricted, and it was explained that if more people wanted to attend, we would have to choose the documents/images/material we wished to “look at” and this would be transported to a different space. On the date of our visit, the room normally used for large groups, was being refurbished, hence this visit to the Western Art print room, being limited to three people only.
We announced ourselves at the main reception in Ashmolean and were escorted to the door leading to the Western Art Print rooms.
Before we were allowed into the room, we had to deposit our belongings in lockers. Notepads were allowed but not pens, the only writing tools allowed are pencils [mercifully the staff had a pot full of them]
We were instructed that any photographic images we took had to be listed on a form, and that for security reasons full images that included the layout of the room were discouraged. Indeed any public use of photographic images was discouraged by the Ashmolean. Images shown here were carefully selected, and published with written permission from The Ashmolean Museum.
The space itself is a large rectangular, high ceilinged room, with tall wooden cabinets, volumes of leather bound tomes and black archive boxes. Cabinets with brass handled drawer pulls, house smaller items and the spacious room included broad wooden tables, where the prints that I had asked for were displayed on wooden easels. There were several additional rooms containing more collections of prints, drawings letters and other and flat documents.
Our exploration of The Western Print room was supervised by Dr Palmer. Dr Caroline Palmer (CP) spent an hour and half answering all of our questions and assisting us in every way that we needed. She was incredibly helpful, and quickly understood that our interest was not in a specific part of the collection, [although I had asked if we could view some of the works of William Blake], but in the management and operating protocols of the collection and archive.
Most visitors come to this room with specific research questions that relate to the collection held in the Western Print rooms. While we were there, the room was being used by students who were looking at two ancient violins, whilst wearing white gloves.
Some collections are held in boxes, called Solander boxes [named after the Swedish botanist Daniel Solander (1733–1782),] The depth of the box is normally about five inches, if it is not made for a specific object.
Various standard sizes are made, with names: “royal”, “imperial”, “elephant” ,”atlas” “Giant” “Antiquarian”, etc. Hierarchy was present in the treatment of drawings and watercolours (upper most) followed by prints, and then letters. Going to the trouble to commission a calligrapher to label the artwork is an act of reverence indicating their value.
The system and aesthetic structure of the containment cabinets, boxes, and books was totally linear, [dare I say..”masculine”] yet in one of the rooms we couldn’t help but notice a large and tumbling collection of different shaped willow baskets with tissue paper inside. CP explained these were to carry precious artifacts between rooms, departments. The baskets stood out in stark contrast to the rooms order and linear nature, they seemed quite incongruous. CP explained that they were used to carry precious objects from room to room and between departments.
2.00 Eastern Art Department : Aimee, Unity, Sarah, Chris and Yi
This meeting was held in the Jameel Education Centre, a spacious room in the “newly extended” part of the museum. The room had a huge central table surrounded by banks of modern storage cabinets.
We were asked to leave our belongings in a small area behind the cabinets and bring only notebooks [once again we were furnished with pencils]
The Eastern Arts Department are fortunate to have three different storage rooms on the site of the main museum.
There are between 40 -45K objects in the Eastern Art collection, they all have accession numbers and their placement and location is tracked on the Museum’s central database. Between 3-5% of the collection is either on display in the museum or in store on site ,the rest are held off site. Parts of the collection are often sent out on fixed term loans, long and complex legal processes involved in loaning parts of the collection, can take years to organise.
What is the difference between archive and collection?
Discussions at the Ashmolean Department of Western Art and Department of Eastern Art revealed the following:
Each department holds a COLLECTION of material, in the case of the Western Art Print room, this collection is generally “flat art work”, there may be additional “ARCHIVAL MATERIAL” that attaches to this collection, for example letters from and to the creator of a collection of prints .
The archive is the documentary evidence of provenance, history, classification and order.
For the museum, the term archive relates to documentation, papers, and letters relevant to the organisations growth and activity, or to the objects in the collection.
Caroline in the Western Art Dept said “The public thinks that the collection that is not in display is the archive, and that the archive is inaccessible.” On the contrary, the collection is open to the public, but paper needs to be stored to preserve it. The stored materials are just as much part of the collection as those being exhibited.
There is no clear definition as to what is archive or collection material. However “Nothing would be moved from the archive to the collection because how it’s categorised is about how the material enters the system.” said Caroline.
How does an artwork or document get added to the collection?
Artworks often enter the system as a gift or bequest from an artists family, said Caroline in the Western Art Dept. Tradition and precedence is almost as important as conservation and strategy. The Western Art Department is valued for its large collection of wood engravings for example, and those who want to be part of the story seek to become part of the continuity afforded by the museum collection.
Curators are responsible for authorizing new items in the collection. All items are numbered and added to the Accession Register. An Accession register is a book that keeps track of when items entered the collection, where they came from, and how they can be found and identified. Information is transposed from this hand-penned book to the museums computerised database.
We looked at the register in the Western Art Dept. The fields of entry were as follows:
- Provenance: Whether the item was purchased, given or loaned.
- A Number: Numbers are about creating a searchable database.
Numbers start with the year they entered the collection.
- Description: to help you verify what you are looking at, dimensions details etc
Aimee Payton in the Eastern Art Dept, showed us the archive of Mary Beattie, a scientist who researched carpets.
It follows a logical order that was developed by Mary. When the Ashmolean received this work, their Archivists set about sifting through every item contained in the archive and moving it into ordered solander boxes where each item was numbered for the accession register.
The precedence set by the original collector is maintained. What stays and goes depends on what the purpose is, what the topic of the collection or archive is, and what the intention is to leave behind for others carried forward into the future by the museums exacting preservation controls, explained Aimee Payton
Practical considerations of conservation are the top priority in a museum collection and its associated archives.
Materials that are damaging to archival material include:
- rubber bands
“We have a legal duty of care toward the items entrusted to us.” said Unity. Preservation and guardianship controls for the museum collection include light levels, security, humidity.
What shape does an archive take?
“It needs to come back to the physical to make any sense at all.
Archive doesn’t mean anything unless it is about stuff”
The structure of documentation is a response to the material. The register listing items entered into the collection has templates for different types of objects.
Archivists are in the business of finding order, making sense, making meaning, and knowing where things are.
“We need to think about the consequence and orders of the project
If someone wants to find it, how are they going to find it?”
Each department has separate protocols that respond the material in its collection. The type of object or material determines the protocol of both the collection and archive.
“Each object demands a different way of being documented , each departments archive has a different logic behind it” said Aimee
In conclusion, our day was a great success: we gathered insights and inspiration and are now in a better position to develop our plans for CAS Chapters (a collection of art works and an ongoing archive). We will develop the Chapters ongoing archive in a dialogic, collaborative way. A CAS Curator will be responsible for curating the Chapters Collection.