Making the Invisible Visible

Libraries and Archives Enhance Museum Education Mission

To the untrained eye, a library and archive probably looks like a quiet place to work, with shelves full of books and files stuffed with old photographs and historical records. But those in the know see how these inanimate objects practically vibrate in place.

The eternal challenge of libraries and archives is that the work of maintaining a collection, by its very nature, never ends. Public access is the priority, but access is only as good as the cataloging system, which, ideally, is constantly being updated. Records also must be migrated from time to time into more technologically advanced databases. Then there is the need to preserve delicate or deteriorating objects, and time spent assisting researchers who use the collections for their work, which means pulling materials and then putting them back. And, because history never stops, new items are always coming in.

Each of the four state museums in Santa Fe has an archive and a non-circulating library that support the work of curators as well as the public education mission of the museum.

“These are incredible resources for curators, educators, scholars and the general public,” says Museum of New Mexico Foundation President/CEO Jamie Clements. “They enhance our understanding of the museum collections and exhibitions, as well as the history of these magnificent institutions. We need to support them.”

The staffs of these departments do a lot with a little, often applying for grants to pursue special projects like processing individual collections, preserving materials, or digitizing holdings to make them more accessible to the public online. Hundreds of thousands of photographs and the full text of many written materials can already be accessed through the museums’ websites. And librarians are eager to answer questions about their institution’s unique holdings.

“Making hard to find materials easy to find, and making the invisible visible, are two fundamental ideas behind my work,” says Allison Colborne, director of the Library of Anthropology at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.

The research library collects and preserves resources on the archaeological record and cultural anthropology of the Indigenous cultures of New Mexico, the greater American Southwest, Mexico and Central America. The Library of Anthropology archives, directed by Diane Bird (Kewa/Santo Domingo Pueblo), contain institutional history, administrative files and special collections.

Jicarilla Apache tribal historian Veronica E. Tiller, who has researched in libraries and archives throughout the United States, says Colborne’s cataloging skills are unmatched.

“Without her valuable assistance, my research in almost any topic would not be the same,” says Tiller.

Supporting the Curators

In the early 1880s, the Montezuma Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico, hosted lavish dinners for wealthy health-seekers visiting the hot springs. The menus were decidedly non-New Mexican, offering guests from the East Coast and Europe such fare as sea turtle soup.

Alicia Romero, New Mexico History Museum curator of New Mexico and Nuevomexicano/a history, discovered this illuminating bit of trivia while researching her latest exhibition, Curative Powers: New Mexico’s Hot Springs.

Romero pieced together the existence of these dinners from images she found at the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, and from written documentation and ephemera from the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library.

“When I started the research, I was shocked at the number of photos that we have of the hot springs in northern New Mexico. I didn’t know they had been regularly photographed,” she says. “That’s actually what prompted me to do the show. If I had found just a couple, it would have been harder to develop the exhibit.”

Hannah Abelbeck, the History Museum’s curator of photographs and archival collections, says the collection contains “in the upper hundreds of thousands” of photographs, negatives, prints and digital images, mostly related to New Mexico history. “The figure ‘a million’ has been used, but we only have estimates, because not everything is cataloged,” she says.

Librarian and archivist Brian Graney leads the Bartlett Library and Archives at the Museum of International Folk Art. Named for the museum’s founder Florence Dibell Bartlett, the archives house information on institutional history as well as field notes from curatorial travel and research. Documentation of the ongoing discussion about how the museum defines folk art, and individual files on local and global folk artists, are also included.

Laura Addison, curator of European and American Folk Art collections, is currently co-editing a book on the design legacy of Alexandar Girard, whose 106,000-object folk art collection is integral to the museum’s holdings. In addition to other materials, the museum library has Girard’s personal research files, a series of hand-labeled, decorative boxes that contain articles, catalogs and notes in careful penmanship about anything that interested him. There are also 6,000 of Girard’s travel slides, which were recently digitized at The Digital Ark’s Santa Fe imaging studio with financial support from the International Folk Art Foundation.

Graney sometimes stumbles upon important institutional history and shares his discoveries with curators. “He came across a photo of an event that happened in 1952, before the museum even opened to the public,” Addison says. “The very famous folk potter from Japan, Hamida Shoji, was great friends with the English potter Bernard Leach, and they were doing this cross-country tour demonstrating Japanese traditional pottery. They did a demonstration in the auditorium. In the audience is Maria Martinez, her son Popovi Da and Georgia O’Keeffe. The photo so represents what the museum was founded on, this idea of creating a place of cultural convergence, of mutual understanding.”

Meanwhile, the archives at the New Mexico Museum of Art hold institutional history and individual artist files, while the library collection is focused on periodicals and books relating to American art of the 20th and 21st centuries. Although the library is ostensibly specific to New Mexico artists, and artists in the museum’s collection, it also covers the art movements of Europe, Asia and Latin America that influenced artists in the Southwest.

Curators use the library and archives to research exhibitions, often employing specific materials in the exhibitions themselves. Katherine Ware, the curator of photography, is using an artist book from the library in Transgressions and Amplifications: Mixed-Media Photography of the 1960s and 1970s. Also located throughout the exhibition are engagement stations with library books about alternative photographic processes, where people can learn more about the topic, says librarian and archivist Abby Smith.

Smith says that docents also rely on the library’s extensive research materials. “The docents have their own study group that the library supports with material in any way we can. They want to be able to answer any questions that come up when they lead tours.”

Smith’s scholarly research queries are varied, coming from academics as often as from people looking into a relative who made art in New Mexico decades ago.

“Recently we had a couple of independent researchers preparing for Antiques Roadshow to visit town. They had an old painting, and they were trying to find out more about the artist,” she says. “There’s a graduate student trying to find out more information about Gisella Loeffler, one of the Taos Colony artists who’s not talked about so much. Another woman was writing about the Santa Fe Indian School and the history of those artists.”

‘A Nice Discovery’

Library and archive collections rely heavily on private donations. These might range from stores of rare art books given to the Museum of Art, to someone’s family donation of photo albums to the Palace Photo Archives, to gifts of cash via the Museum of New Mexico Foundation designated to support the special needs of a particular library and archival collection.

Collections that are donated directly to a specific museum must be processed and cataloged, requiring time and manpower to make them accessible to the public. It can take years to process every item that comes in, which is why stories abound about objects being “discovered” in materials waiting in the accessions queue. Often, an archivist looks into a query from a curator or scholar and is surprised by something in a file they’d never previously explored.

At the Chávez History Library, librarians Kathleen Dull and Heather McClure recently completed digitizing over 200 audio recordings in the John S. Candelario collection. The project was supported with funding from a $15,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources via the Museum of New Mexico Foundation.

A seventh-generation New Mexican, Candelario was best known as a photographer. However his archives contain reel-to-reel and cassette tapes that include soundtracks to films he directed, Native songs, Spanish folk songs, interviews and lectures.

“It’s a mystery as to why this set of recordings is in the Candelario archives, but a nice discovery,” Dull says. Additional audio recordings were recently located at the History Museum and Museum of Art, which they think are part of the Candelario collection but were separated over time.

“We would like to digitize these and need funding to do so,” Dull says. “One of the recently discovered recordings is of Freida Lawrence reading D.H. Lawrence’s love poems. A copy of the audio on cassette was found in a desk in the History Library and another in an unlabeled drawer at the Museum of Art. Through conversations with our colleagues at the Photo Archives, we discovered there is motion picture footage as well.”

While most of the funding that the libraries and archives receive is through grants, they sometimes get generous technological gifts that help them with their work. The New Mexico Museum of Art Library and Archives now has a specialized color scanning system, a gift from Ambassador David and Connie Girard-diCarlo. And the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives has a Digital Transitions Atom funded in part by a private donation.

“Scans used to take us four to eight minutes to process. This is more of a shutter click, so the digitization process is much faster,” says Abelbeck of Photo Archives. “But the description part is no faster. It’s manual. Sometimes description requires transcription, sometimes there’s research. We could use a lot more private donor support than we currently get. I’m not sure that people know we need the support.”

Getting it Right

How library and archival items are described is crucial to accessiblity, as descriptions contain the keywords that make them searchable. The time and effort required to make sure descriptions are accurate is another challenge.

Accuracy is an issue that Kim Suina Melwani (Cochiti Pueblo) sees all the time in archives, in Santa Fe museums and elsewhere. Melwani has been working with the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture on the renovated Here, Now and Always permanent exhibition. She began in 2017 as a community curator, lending her point of view as a Cochiti tribal member, and then took on an enhanced role as a curatorial assistant. Much of her work involved fact-checking information contained in the exhibition at the Library of Anthropology.

Knowing how hard librarians and archivists work, Melwani still cringes when she runs across photos of people she knows whose names or dates are incorrectly labeled. When the photos were taken, she says, the subjects weren’t necessarily asked for their permission or their names. “Personally, for me, coming from one of these communities, it’s important to get it right.”

Getting it right is an ongoing effort. It requires building trust with communities of color and other marginalized populations by involving them with the work of the collections.

It’s an issue that all museums face, says Romero, the History Museum curator. Born and raised in northern New Mexico, Romero has researched her own family in the archives.

“The closest thing I could find that pertained to them were photographs of the villages they were from, and kind of identifying where their houses were,” she says. “There are so many stories of everyday life that are left out of museums because people don’t know that our archives are interested in their family histories. That’s something we want to correct.”


This article and image are from the Museum of New Mexico Foundation’s Member News Magazine Fall 2022.