Behind the scenes: Art Museum library a trove of history
OMC: Is it overwhelming to you to decide what to digitize first? There is limit to what you can do.
HW: That is a great question, because, yes, there are days where I want to go hide in the corner and just focus on this one thing. It is just a matter of considering what is coming up in the exhibition schedule, what we are looking for, what people are interested in, what are the requests that come in. If an artist has just recently passed away, then I am looking at our collections to see how can I get that information up and out and (make it) useful for our staff.
We are working on a lot of different ways to get what we refer to as some of the ingredients out there – that supporting information – because it's a hard challenge for museums. It is constantly growing and it can be challenging for the staff, the public and everyone.
So, we are looking at technology as a way to expedite some of the ways to take this detail and put that into the staff's hands. I can be running around here all excited about something, but somehow I need to communicate it to the right people at the right time, and the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition is a great example of that.
We have a video in the exhibition. There was this long-standing rumor that we have had this video somewhere in the building. (We) had been looking for years and happened to find this video, so we quick had it transferred and we are trying to learn more about it.
Not long after we found a lecture that had said "Frank Lloyd Wright Episcopal Church" (on the label) so we thought it was Frank Lloyd Wright lecturing about the Episcopal church and when we had it transferred and listened to it, it was actually Frank Lloyd Wright talking. I was not familiar with the lecture but he was referencing some things that helped us pinpoint the date so we put it on the blog and asked if anyone could help us.
I don't know if it was even 24 hours later and some gentlemen wrote us back and said, "absolutely I know what that is. I am here in Milwaukee" and he has written five or six books, and he said he would come in. So he came in and he recognized the first part of the video. He said here is the time stamp list of who's who. He had picked out a few of the people who were there. He already had that knowledge. It is this mechanism to reach out to the public, and to say, "hey can anyone help us?"
We have to do a lot more research to actually confirm some of this stuff, but there are some very rare scale drawings of buildings in Japan, some of them that do not exist anymore. We have a lot of questions about how it all got here.
OMC: So the Wright video, or the Wright film sort of illustrates the fact that there is a lot here that remains to be discovered?
HW: I think that is a good example of it, yes, because we have 450 reel-to-reel tapes, presentations, lectures and guest speakers.
OMC: Are they labeled?
HW: Well, yes, they are all labeled but I am concerned because the label that we had on the Frank Lloyd Wright one was wrong and there was that rumor.
OMC: Can you imagine a time when someone could sit at a computer and type in "Frank Lloyd Wright" and watch the film and hear the lectures? Is that something that you have been able to get your head around?
HW: That's our plan. It is challenging, absolutely, but one of the benefits is that, as a museum, we are not the only place in the world that deals with this overwhelming amount of information. One of the things that I think has really helped is the History Channel and "Antiques Roadshow."
I think that has really helped the world wrap their mind around the general value of all this, and the value of keeping more and the value of asking more questions. The potential is huge, so we really look forward to taking advantage of the new technology that will help us gather and make it.
Ideally, I see a world some day where people will be sitting at their desk and someone says "what do we have on Wright?" and the video shows up, and the lecture. So we have the lecture transcribed and someone can say, "I want to create a teaching packet of this," and then a system can deliver it to you. Here is the audio they would need; here is the video part of what you need.
OMC: I assume that the exciting part about going through those cabinets is that you are going to find things, like the Wright film, that you don't know about.
HW: There are a lot of days where there is a lot of screaming down here. We have 120-plus years of amazing and extraordinary international reputation. I worked in the art world in New York and Manhattan for a long time. I learned more about our collection there, than I did growing up here, which was my own fault. I didn't take advantage of what we had here, and I wish I would have.
It was really eye-opening to realize the material we have here in terms of art, and imagine that it is matched by the material we have (in the library), and the discussions that we have with artists and artist lectures. There are a lot of really interesting things that I think people will be discovering in the future. I think that it will be an opportunity through technology to make personal connections. I would guess that the average person does not even know that there is a library here.
OMC: So who is your clientele? Is it mostly staff?
HW: I would say its about 60 percent (staff). But we have requests from all over the world. It is about any number of topics. I have a stack of e-mail requests on my desk. People can just write, "hey, we are working on something." It's amazing how easy it is for people to ask these questions now.
I think it is because of things like the History Channel and all of these shows that remind you that although you might have an object and see an object, there is how many layers deep a story that actually makes that valuable. Whether it is fiscally valuable, historically valuable, intellectually. Whatever the case may be, it is connecting with you in some way. So there is a huge group of people that come to us with questions.
We are history people. So we try to help them look at reference resources online before they decide to look for an appraiser. The tools of having a better sense of the artist, or the time period, will make them a better consumer, and maybe engage them more, as well. We try to help people become more a part of the process, than be the person that just calls the appraiser.
OMC: Do you have a background in library science?
HW: Yes I have my masters in library studies. I have a masters in history, I worked in galleries. I have done a whole bunch of seemingly unrelated things that have all come together here.
OMC: Does the library get a lot of outside support?
HW: Well, there are different things that have come to us. We have a lot of extraordinary book collections come into the library. That is probably the best way that we have had recognition. We also have a fund that was set up 30 years ago. We also have a book sale once a year so then we can let some of the materials we cannot use back into the public circles. We use that money to purchase new material.
OMC: So de-accessioning is not a dirty word in this field.
HW: These are replaceable materials. It is a completely different beast. We have really combed through the collection. Michelangelo makes the cut. We keep as close as we can to reflecting what we have in the collection. Our books are expensive.
OMC: I assume you also consider that every museum is taking a similar approach and if everyone is focusing on their own unique thing then you know where you can find what you do not have yourself.
HW: Yes, actually that is one of the ways that we gain some our material. It is like a librarian credo, to help get the material into libraries to help keep everyone informed in a financially responsible way. No libraries have money.
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