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.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Lost Archives

Although museum archives have had an uneven history, the custodianship of art and the administration of the material culture of history have always been closely associated with recordkeeping. Accurate recordkeeping is critical for the provenance of collections, and the post of museum registrar (the individual keeping track of the documentation of objects and collections) is as old as the concept of museum. Archival evidence is essential for unraveling the creation and lineage of a painting or sculpture or for understanding how a documentary collection was assembled and maintained through the years. As the spate of writing about art and antiquities looting and the international market for such pilferage suggests, sometimes documentation is overlooked or even fabricated, additional testaments to the importance of recordkeeping in the museum world.

Because of the strong tradition in recordkeeping, as well as many similar functions and activities with archives and the archival mission, I regularly read about museums – their history, ethics, acquisition of collections, and so forth. I finally got around to reading Jonathan Harr’s bestselling The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006), ISBN-10: 0-375-75986-7, and I was intrigued by all the references to archives. Harr, a master storyteller, follows some young scholars as they dig for documentary evidence in various family, government, and proprietary archives for traces of the long-lost Carravaggio painting, The Taking of Christ. Harr also follows the Baroque painting’s fortitudinous recovery when it emerges from an Irish monastery into the hands of a restorer, and then how the restoration work and archival sleuthing blend together to form a complete sense of the painting’s creation and subsequent history.

Given the fact that this publication was on the bestsellers’ list of the New York Times for quite some time, we should realize that a significant portion of the public gained a sense of archives from this volume. Two young Italian scholars visit a family archives in Rome, and we read about decaying volumes, fading ink, brittle pages, and puzzling notarial and accountant entries and we see archivists, with light steps and whispering voices, assisting them. We experience with the researchers their discoveries of clues “buried in the archives.” We follow the researchers to another family archives outside of Rome, and we watch them work through a set of records with a jumbled organization, conducting their research while they witness the family matriarch reorganizing the archives to suit her needs. One of the researchers relates to the other that this was “like watching someone clean house by throwing things out the window – plates and silverware, pots and pans – as if that were completely normal” (p. 56).

There is commentary about archives throughout Harr’s account. As our intrepid two young scholars track a lead to an English auction house, they discover that the successor firm had kept none of the older house’s records. One of the researchers comments to the other, “’No records. . . . You always tell me how precise and orderly this country is. In Italy, at least, they keep every piece of paper, every document, going back five hundred years!’” (p. 140). In another instance, the painting’s restorer, trying to ascertain how the Irish Jesuit monastery had acquired it in the early twentieth century, discovers that they had no records related to it and expresses his amazement: “’A shameful situation. . . . Religious archives in Italy, they record everything. Not here in Ireland. They are a peculiar people.’” (p. 242).

The point is, it is mostly in such bestselling books that the public learns about archives, their importance, and how and why they are used. These books don’t sell because they are about archives, but they do connect more people to archives and archivists than anything being written about in the profession today. Still, not all is well. The Lost Painting depicts archives as being in dank cellars, covered in dust, often at the mercy of strange and eccentric individuals – and it is not to argue that these circumstances and characteristics are not depicted in a faithful fashion in this book. An account such as this fuels the stereotypes of archives and archivists, and those of us aware of the archival community and its practice need to be aware when such portraits of our field are painted. I have seen archives in both Italy and Ireland, and there are many that present very different images. Someday, I hope a bestselling book will appear depicting a more modern operation, not one with an ancient, chain smoking family matriarch guarding over the archives and rearranging them in eccentric fashion.

One will be hard-pressed to find a better evening’s read that Harr’s book, beautifully written and depicting a great story in the art world.