Hardly a week goes by without the announcement of an archive either being made accessible online or, on the other hand, one that is at risk. The former points to new horizons for research as well as providing a refreshment of archives hitherto only available in paper form; the latter results in much hand-wringing at a possible dispersal by sale. Technically, of course, the latter is not usually ‘an archive’; it is an accumulation of papers and documents, maybe already nicely tidied, but which has not yet been the subject of rigorous archival categorisation. An example of a newly available archive is that launched last November by the National Gallery, London. Besides giving access to the expected material of minutes, correspondence and acquisition files, you can now find documents relating, for example, to the first installation of a telephone in the Gallery in 1898 (suitably linked to Scotland Yard) or the public appeal to purchase Titian’s Death of Actaeon in 1971–72. An example of an archive not exactly at risk but whose future is uncertain is that of the London dealer Agnew’s, an immensely important accumulation dating back to the early nineteenth century and now to be sold, following the closure of the business on 30th April this year. Anyone who has consulted this embryonic archive will testify to its riches – its correspondence, ledgers, photographs etc. – for which an obvious home is the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles with its emphasis on provenance and the art market. But an up-to-the-minute archival makeover and its placing online will take a long time and its removal to California will necessarily limit its availability to historians of British art. These two examples concern archives of institutions. Increasingly, individual artist’s archives are proliferating, many sought out and acquired during an artist’s lifetime, by museums, libraries and university collections.
In a book published last month, All This Stuff. Archiving the Artist, a collection of papers originally given at conferences in 2007 and 2009, Anna McNally, formerly of the Tate Archive, gives an excellent summary of the archivist’s aims and procedures.1 How does one tackle the mass of files and boxes that arrive at an institution directly from the artist, if alive, or from his or her heirs? (The fumigating of the papers for possible creepy crawlies is the first priority.) The papers may or may not have been given some approximate order by the artist or the heirs. If they have, the archivist tries to discover what criteria were adopted and find out, also, if the papers have been in any significant way censored. Censoring (or even complete destruction, as in James’s The Aspern Papers) is commonplace (although, as McNally points out, an archive cannot ‘lack items’). The extraordinary story of the censoring of parts of the archives at Belvoir Castle by the 9th Duke of Rutland, recently told in Catherine Bailey’s The Secret Rooms, is a spectacular example. Security from theft or intervention by ‘researchers’ is of paramount importance, especially since the astonishing infiltration of museum archives by John Drewe, convicted in 1999 for ‘corrupting’ archives at the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and elsewhere in order to provide provenances for forged works of art.
Just as paper archives can be vulnerable to theft and forgery, the bona fide researcher is at the mercy of the archivist on whose criteria, knowledge, sensitivity and skills the researcher depends. However, the categorisation of an archive assumes less importance once it has been fully digitised. The rapidity of search mechanisms and multiple-point access are of enormous benefit in terms of saving time, focusing research and the revelation of the unexpected. On the downside, digital preservation can be hindered by swift technological changes; all the more important is it to have secure digital storage. At the same time the contents of recent and contemporary archives themselves are at risk or not always as rich as they might be – faxes fade; floppy disks are not eternal; emails are not always printed out and filed: they have that personally unsigned, detached look that suggests a certain inferiority to the postal communication. Who will know what the lightning press on the delete key has wiped from the historical record?
A further risk to today’s archiving impulse is funding. To finalise an archive and place it online is a costly and laborious process. A recent report on funding finds that many archivists lack ‘the experience and confidence’ to raise funds and that archives are frequently omitted from the larger strategic planning of institutions.2 With recent and impending cuts in the arts sector, the ordering and digitising of archives are less likely to receive financial support, for the ‘footfall’ will be minimal.
At the Burlington we are asked about our archive at fairly regular intervals. Surely a publication such as ours will have files bulging with letters to and from Bode and Berenson, Fry and Gombrich? Not so. We do not have an archive. We have a roughly organised accumulation of correspondence, box files of papers, a clutch of photographs and an album of press cuttings. Admittedly some of this material goes back to just before the first issue of the Magazine (March 1903). But up to the 1950s, the pickings are scarce, for at some point a cull was carried out; and while the four people mentioned above are represented, it is obvious that much else from them was discarded. From the late 1940s onwards, however, the archival balloon begins to fill and we become buoyant with correspondence from, to name a few, Kenneth Clark, Douglas Cooper, Frederick Antal, Anthony Blunt, Ellis Waterhouse, Anita Brookner and John Golding. Acrimonious letters to the Editor and sometimes fierce spats over articles and attributions can be followed with considerable pleasure in between the Editor’s shorter and wintry letters of rejection. But, as yet, this is not an archive. We have the ingredients and more material is being added, from the past as well as, of course, the present. With links to other archives, the result will be one of considerable fascination.
1 All This Stuff. Archiving the Artist. Edited by Judy Vaknin, Karyn Stuckey and Victoria Lane. 178 pp. incl. 57 b. & w. ills. (Libri Publishing, Faringdon, 2013), £25. (PB). ISBN 978–1–907471–76–6.
2 ‘Funding the Archives Sector’, a report produced by the National Archives and the International Centre for Archives and Records Management Research and User Studies, University College London. September 2012.