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A sampling of the paper trail that often accompanies an artwork once it enters the collection. Photo: Bryan Conley.

The People That You Meet in Museum Files

When an artwork enters a museum’s collection, it usually has an extensive paper trail, and possibly an electronic trail, but that documentation doesn’t stop after acquisition. Museum staff, volunteers, and students often do additional research into the artwork’s history, provenance, or significance. All of that knowledge generates tons of paper-condition reports, loan agreements, conservation treatment reports, photocopies of auction catalogs, scholarly articles, incident reports, the occasional MA thesis rough draft, magazine articles, bibliographies, sticky notes, letters, copies of letters, deeds of gift, wills, acknowledgements of gifts, and, prior to the adaptation of electronic collection databases in the late 1990s, card catalogs. Yes, catalogs plural.

All of this paper gets sorted and copied into curatorial files, donor files, and meeting minutes as a way of creating a structured story of an artwork’s existence prior to its arrival at Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) and the mechanism by which we assumed stewardship of it. Some files are huge and stuffed full of handwritten letters on heavy official paper, with mounds of photocopied articles. Others are svelte, and contain only the trusty catalog document, lovingly typewritten by registrars long ago (and not so long ago, as the typewriter at CMOA still gets weekly use). But each of these paper breadcrumbs helps build a compelling narrative.

While our collection database is powerful and keeps track of the pertinent information relating to the art itself, the paper files and their contents are really critical to telling the story of the people involved in creating, owning, and caring for the artwork. And you’d be surprised at the people you meet.

Diving in to the file for Jean-Siméon Chardin’s Glass of Water and Coffeepot yielded quite a surprise. Tucked in an archival sleeve was a neatly typed letter with a lovely red letterhead of cooking pans, garlic, and wooden spoons, that happened to have come from Julia Child.

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Jean-Siméon Chardin, Glass of Water and Coffeepot, ca. 1761. Carnegie Museum of Art, Howard A. Noble Fund.

Yes, there was a little fangirl squealing coming from the office.

The French Chef herself had responded to a former curator’s letter requesting her assistance in identifying the curious brown ceramic pot with a handle. The other correspondence and scholarly references in the file revealed conflicting opinions on what the pot was for—a coffee pot, a chocolate pot, or, as Ms. Child suggests, a pot for holding hot water.

She also suggests that Chardin might have been preparing to make himself a hot lemonade with fennel and onion, alluding to the other items in the painting. Not something that I would enjoy personally, but if Julia suggests it, I’m sure it’s delicious.

I also admire the gumption and creativity of the curator to reach out to Julia Child and ask her to identify the items—but really, if you want to identify French culinary items, who else would you go to?

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Letter from Julia Child. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

Sometimes correspondence is less charming and more direct. Many files contain telegrams, which are devoid of punctuation, and have a typeface that looks like someone left the caps lock on.

They were basically the Twitter of the day, though the appearance and tone can make them read a bit like tweets from an overcaffeinated troll account. There’s more than one telegram that simply reads “GOOD,” “YES,” or “NO,” while others manage to cram multisyllabic phrases in with surprising economy.

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James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate, 1884. Carnegie Museum of Art.

And just in case you thought telegrams were an ancient form of communication, I discovered in my research that telegrams were still being sent as recently as 2006. Yes, 2006.

Letters about letters also make an appearance.

The file for Whistler’s Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate contained a personal connection. I am a graduate of the University of Glasgow, where there is a center for the study of Whistler and his works, as well as a large collection. While I was a postgraduate, many in my cohort were involved in digitizing, translating, and cross referencing Whistler’s correspondence. Imagine my surprise at stumbling on my university crest, and the names of faraway friends, while sitting in my office here in Pittsburgh. Apparently, Whistler and Sarasate had a lot to say to each other.

There’s also a surprising amount of humor. When I began working on Renoir’s Bathers With Crab, one of the first papers to appear was a loan approval form. As forms go, loan approval forms are fairly cut and dried, and there’s not usually much of a surprise; the museum approves or declines the requested loan, and provides a rationale for the decision.

But Bathers with Crab has a bit of a special reason for its 2011 loan to the Milwaukee Art Museum. In the box for reason for approval was written: “Lost Super Bowl bet.” And that was it.

For Super Bowl XLV, the directors of CMOA and MAM made a wager of a short-term loan of a significant work from their collection. Loser lends. As you may have guessed, the Steelers were responsible for our Renoir taking a little detour to Milwaukee.

There’s tons of great handwritten marginalia included on the papers from previous colleagues and volunteers. Deciphering and identifying the handwriting of my predecessors has become a bit of a party trick. But in those notes are hints at the events of the day, from the major to the minor, the political to the personal, the hysterical to the historical.

One of my favorite examples of letters foreshadowing the future was from an early director of the museum to an acquaintance traveling overseas. There is some polite conversation about methods of travel, in which he declares that he would never travel by airplane, but has been considering taking a zeppelin, owing to their seemingly superior comfort and safety.

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Pierre Auguste Renoir, Bathers with Crab, ca. 1890–1899. Carnegie Museum of Art.

With Art Tracks, we’re working hard to impose structure on really unstructured data, with the hope that we use that data to tell stories. In my role, I have the task of angling for these stories and teasing out relationships, rivalries, and all of the familial interconnections and intersections you can think of. When we think about art, we’re often thinking about the object, and the story, event, or emotion contained therein. Occasionally, historians focus on the narrative of a specific artist or their patrons, but in Art Tracks, we’re focusing on both the fantastic and familiar people who owned the artworks that live in our care.

And I do want to emphasize live. What these files have shown me is that an artwork’s story doesn’t end or die when it enters the museum, it just seeks a new reader and a new voice. It may be hours spent reading people’s correspondence and structuring their biographies with geotags, but it can feel like I know them. I’ve absorbed through osmosis their birth and death dates, marriages, and family trees. And just like good friends, it’s always nice to unexpectedly encounter them in the course of the day.

  • erin oneill

    Tracy, You have just taken us on a few new gratifiing journeys, thank you. Like the corrispondence of the formally unknown, about the objects we stewart through, your words have brought delightful new layers to our communities art collection; and layers to the most valuable talents who lovingly care for and share the priceless objects on through to the next generations.
    Many years ago while standing next to a art preparator loading a large artwork into a huge crate on a downtown sidewalk, a passing stranger once said ” You were chosen’ for that job, take it seriously, that piece is everyones”. That strangers outlook and statement seems to exists for you and the great team at the museum. Thank you, kindly for allowing the powers that be to bring you down this path and taking it to heart. We are all benefiting.