Curating the Archives

A conversation between Wendy Scheir, Director of the New School Archives and Special Collections, and Julia Foulkes, historian and co-curator of the exhibition.

Julia: “Offense + Dissent” relied almost entirely on materials from the New School Archives. The exhibition, then, offers an opportunity to reflect on how curators use archival materials and some of the challenges and tensions that arise in creating an exhibition based on the past. Do you see a difference in the obligations between an archivist and a curator?

Wendy: Archivists have a set of preoccupations regarding the materials in their care that I do think differ from those of curators using these same materials in an exhibition. The archivist is of course concerned with certain practical matters–for instance, archival materials have particular physical traits that impose limitations on how they can be displayed. But more relevant to this conversation is the responsibility I think archivists feel toward the creators of the materials in their care. This is partly why we put such emphasis on the correct and full citation of sources. Proper citation not only gives full acknowledgment to the creator of the archival item, it also provides a path for curious exhibition-goers to find out more about the creator, and about the context in which the materials were produced.

In fact, many of the preoccupations of archivists boil down to questions of context. Archivists believe that primary source materials are best and most fully understood when viewed within the context of other materials produced by the same person or organization, and when displayed in a fashion that points to the larger social/cultural/political forces at work in the world when the work came into being. Who made this? What was the intent behind its creation? How was the work used at the time it was made? I hope to see these questions asked when archival items are used in an exhibition.

Julia: As you point out, curators, like historians, are interpreting materials, for argumentation and narrative. What you suggest, however, is that there is not only the obligation to provide citation but also to include an awareness of the necessary selection and interpretation of that material. That is perhaps easier to do in a book or an article than an exhibit of objects, with relatively few words.

Wendy: It’s really about establishing the context, regardless of genre. Whether archival materials are used by a historian for an article, or by a curator in an exhibition, a temporal displacement occurs when historical materials are studied and used in present day; the archival item is interpreted within a new conceptual framework, is used to explore a new set of questions. So the item undergoes a contextual shift. Old materials are redeployed in service of a new story. This unavoidable reinterpretation adds a layer of new meaning onto the meaning the material had when it was created and originally used. So that sets up an inherent, interesting but tricky reverberation between past and present that is baked into any exhibition that uses archival materials.

Also, contemporary exhibitions generally are more heavily weighted toward the visual and experiential than the textual, so the contextual shift I’m talking about is often not immediately evident to exhibition-goers. So awareness of the original use and meaning of the item may go undercover, too. I’d challenge curators using archival materials to explore creative ways to make the shift evident in a visual, experiential way, to make the point they’re making, and at the same time to make viewers aware of the displacement, the layering. I’m certainly not saying this is an easy thing to do! 

Julia: These tensions are a part of any use of primary materials and it seems to me that different presentations — book, article, exhibit, film, novel — change how they are handled. What do you see as some of the strategies that exhibitions use?

Wendy: An example of a recent challenge that  came up in our “Voices of Crisis” exhibition had to do with how to present an incident we discovered in the archives. The exhibition was about a lecture series on race at the New School in 1964. We found correspondence that showed that Malcolm X had accepted an invitation to participate in the series, but was later disinvited. How to present this? We could have omitted the incident entirely, or we could have simply posted the letter of disinvitation, and moved on. We felt it was an important enough part of the story we were telling to include it–it complicated our narrative–but we realized, too, that we’d need to provide some context for the letter of disinvitation. We used news clippings, photos, other letters and highlighted remarks from several speakers in the series to locate the disinvitation within a matrix of attitudes and concerns of the moment. We wanted people to see the gap between the way Malcolm X is viewed today versus the position he was in and the ways he was perceived in 1964. 

Julia: One temptation in utilizing archival materials is to re-create previous exhibitions from the past. (In “Offense + Dissent,” this was part of our discussion on how to present the “My God! We’re Losing a Great Country” controversy, based on a student exhibition from 1970.) As a historian, and I assume for you, as an archivist, this is problematic because such re-creation is not only not possible (there are inevitable gaps in what has been preserved, for example), but it also obscures the interpretive and reflective part of looking at the past that I feel should be a part of any presentation of the past.

Wendy: Yes, I think attempting precise re-creation is a problematic temptation. It is more important, it seems to me, to display a full context of what happened, why, what’s missing, etc. — to show the contradictory and difficult-to-comprehend nature of examining the past. 

Even if an exhibition is not focused on a past event, though, there are many examples of the use of archival materials in exhibitions to deepen our understanding. The recent Metropolitan Museum exhibit of the mural Thomas Hart Benton painted for the New School used an architectural plan, on loan from the New School Archives, of the room in which the mural was situated. The plan revealed the extent of interaction between the architect Joseph Urban and Benton, the painterly choices made by architectural limitations. The MET featured this fairly plain architectural plan to reveal the back-and-forth, ongoing conversation that took place at the moment of creation.

Another example of overt interplay between past and present is how “Offense + Dissent” used archival materials to show how images that were a source of controversy at one historical moment, were forgotten in another. I  hope we can be part of more exhibitions with this level of use of archival materials and historical context –- and that the exhibitions in turn inspire people to come do their own research in the archives!