Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Wheelin' and Dealin'

All fields dealing with cultural heritage materials – from books to manuscripts to art objects – have to contend with the consequences of their economic value. Security is an immense obligation, as stolen artifacts and objects can disappear quickly into the marketplace and into the hands of private collectors. While we have had a growing literature on security and the trade in such materials, we have had little explanation about how the economic value of these objects is determined.

Although Don Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) is not about the trade in cultural heritage, specifically archival documents, it will be of interest to anyone interested in how financial values come to be assigned to unique artistic and documentary materials. Thompson, an economist, followed the contemporary art market over a year and his “book looks at the economics and psychology of art, dealers, and auctions. It explores money, lust, and the self-aggrandizement of possession, all important elements of the world of contemporary art” (p. 7). Thompson provides a detailed accounting of the inner workings of artists, dealers, museums, private collectors, art critics, and auction houses. He considers how certain contemporary art becomes prominent, noting that the “art trade is the least transparent and least regulated major commercial activity in the world” (p. 29), a statement written before the current financial markets meltdown.

Thompson delves into the inner reasons driving the contemporary art market, and here those who work with the generally less visible, out of the headlines, archival collecting will find much that is familiar, although operating on a less spectacular scale. For example, Thompson attributes one of the reasons for the flourishing art trade as having to do with the “worldwide expansion of museums as donors seek immortality and cities seek respectability and increased tourism” (p. 54). Archivists need only think of the intense competition that often takes place for the next presidential library and museum. Thompson also does an excellent job in capturing the sometimes weird and eccentric personalities of the artists, dealers, and curators, and the archives world also is full of similar players.

If one wants an introduction to the economics of collecting, this is a good place to start.


At 10:33 PM, Blogger Lee Stout said...

While the increasing commodification of archival materials as seen on the “Antiques Roadshow” is regrettable, I find the notion of archival institution as tourist attraction far more interesting.
Our university archives was at one time listed in the Pennsylvania AAA tourist guide. I don't know if it ever drew any visitors in or not because we didn't track "browsers" in any meaningful way other than to count them.
But even so, there would've been no browsers if there had been nothing to look at. It was the exhibits that we created that brought browsers (i.e., non-users) into the archives. Certainly, one of the principal outreach tools we have are exhibits, and they can be a true scholarly activity through the selection, presentation, and interpretive apparatus we create in the exhibit, not to mention an accompanying catalog.
Now we have always maintained that we create exhibits primarily to stimulate use, to alert viewers to possible research opportunities, or stimulate them to undertake a study them might not have otherwise tried. (There's also the possibility that it might stimulate future donations when people realize we collect something they have that they might not value).
While we don't turn away people who just want to see the exhibits, we also pretty much ignore them. If they aren't users in the traditional sense, we're not really all that interested in them. Perhaps the question we should be asking, is should this museum-function mean something more to us. Should we just be satisfied with creating good will and leave it at that, or should we examine museum goals and methods of assessment as a further part of demonstrating effectiveness of archives? After all, visitors to presidential libraries are primarily museum visitors, not archives users. We currently spend a not inconsiderable amount of effort on exhibits, but we generally don't evaluate them.
Needless to say, our websites are probably visited far more often by “browsers” or other visitors, than by actual researchers. Increasingly we are being pressed to assess the effectiveness of our efforts on the web. Is web-browsing a form of tourism and do we have something to learn from these fields? At the same time, is it possible that in the future, our home community may add our archives to other venues of heritage tourism that are a growing part of our economy? Interesting questions.
Lee Stout
Librarian Emeritus and past-University Archivist
Penn State Univ. Libraries


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