Curation History and Heritage Museums Uncategorized

Ben Laurence, Kelly Scott, and Stefan Barker; The Witte Museum

It’s 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning at The Witte Museum. Three interns steer a pallet of supplies through a hive of activity. Excited children climb inside a gigantic nose after listening to a short explanation on the purpose of nasal mucus. As the interns pass a group of uncomfortable fathers, their young sons activate an exhibit that explains and then recreates flatulence. After hurriedly passing pinball machines explaining the latter part of the digestive system, the burping animatronic figure near the exit is a welcome sight. While this sonorous, colorful exhibit may be uncomfortable for adults, it draws families and crowds of chaperoned students to the museum. Quiet, highly informative, long-term exhibits pique the interest of adults later in their visit. It became clear that all exhibits serve two fundamental purposes for the museum. The Witte’s mission “to motivate public interest in history, science, the humanities, and the arts through its collections, exhibits, publications, and education programs” is served on all accounts (

In addition to motivating interest and informing the public, exhibits provide funding through admission fees. These funds insure that there will be flatulence generators and burping robots in the future, while likewise insuring that there will be a pallet of supplies to maneuver through them. These supplies, however, were not bound for use in any exhibit. This pallet of custom archival supplies was destined for use in a largely unseen aspect of the museum’s mission: the preservation of collections. The protection and organization of these collections, funded in part by visitors, exists so that researchers can access the majority of museum assets that the public will never see. When most people consider the functions of a modern museum, family education, entertainment, and field trips come to mind. Few realize that a museum also functions as place of research. As we discovered, the organization and preservation of collections requires specific archival storage materials, countless work hours, and certain unique skills. As Collections Department interns for the summer of 2014, the authors learned about this large and rarely seen portion of the museum. The care, organization, and long-term preservation of these materials, which is a main responsibility of the Collections Department, took up the bulk of our time as interns.

When visiting a museum, most do not realize that only a small portion of the collection is actually being displayed and that the rest is stored away for studying purposes only. In contrast, today’s museum may seem at first glance to have developed into a form of entertainment and not a means to learn. The museum was once considered a place to muse, which is where the word museum springs from. Wealthy individuals owned museums of the past and guests were allowed in on the whim of the owner. The heart and soul of the historical museum was the collecting of oddities and new findings for research and scientific purposes. The documents that all three interns worked with speak to the Witte’s function as a place of research.

Working with Archives, Kelly Scott

The Witte has successfully kept the idea of knowledge and study intact in their new building, the B. Naylor Morton Research and Collections Center, by creating a study room with access, after formal permission, to vertical documents such as newspaper articles, scholarship about Texas, San Antonio history files, architectural files, biographical files, photographs, and Texas artists (photography, paint, and drawings). These files, which encompass the goal to continue study in the museum, were the interns’ main priority to rehouse and transport to the new facility. My goal for the summer was to gather all files available, make sure they were complete, rehouse them in new acid-free file folders, rewrite the file label name, rebox them into newer containers, type new box labels, and then cart them to the new building.

One subject in particular that I worked with the most was the Onderdonk Texas artist files which included Julian, Eleanor and Robert Onderdonk who all painted Texas related pieces. Eleanor (1884–1964) was an esteemed miniaturist, and Julian (1882–1922) became renowned as the “Bluebonnet painter.” Their father, Robert, went to Texas in 1878 and married Emily Gould in 1881. He hoped to accomplish portraits for wealthy Texas residents and make enough money to travel to Europe to study. He ultimately stayed in Texas for 38 years, where he painted and trained others. He established an art association for women artists in San Antonio called the Van Dyck club, which later became the San Antonio Arts League. His daughter Eleanor was a vital member and coordinator of this association. All three of their works were on display in the South Texas Heritage Center connected to the Witte and I was able to handle and rehouse most of the family’s documents and copies of family photographs and art. The Onderdonk files were a delicate file group to work with because of their importance to San Antonio culture, and so each file was handled with great care. Certain paper items were delicate, i.e. newspaper clippings, paper documents, correspondence papers, ect. Some articles had not been handled in so long that, if not handled properly, they could feasibly tear or fall apart. Acid-free file folders and boxes are extremely important in cases such as this so that these timeless documents will not be harmed in their housing over the years.

The transition made for these files was difficult at times because of the many hands that touched them. Over the past 40 or more years these files were written by hand and were sometimes illegible. While rewriting the file names, we sometimes had to look through the file to find the correct label name to describe it. Also, sometimes files were missing and needed to be found or replaced or the file was present but the article within the file was not there. In that case, only a note could be written stating that the article was not in the file during transition. Weather was also a huge setback while keeping these files safe from harm. For several weeks it rained and during that period boxes accumulated in our storage space because we could not transport the boxes of files out in the rain. Another group of objects consisted of large paintings that had to be transported from a collection the museum was keeping in storage to the new building. We were able to carry said paintings downstairs and across the street in an enclosed truck, but the new building does not have stairs that lead to the art housing. Ben, Stefan and another volunteer helped the collections manager and other staff members hoist the pieces with tethers and a pulley system over the balcony, since they would not fit in the elevator. In short, keeping items safe and composed is an arduous task for a collections manager and staff.

Historical Documents, Ben Laurence

The Witte’s collection of historical documents has been housed in the art storage room for untold years. The major task I was assigned this summer was the re-housing and re-location of this collection. The collection contained a wide range of material. High end restaurant menus from the mid to late 1800s provided an interesting look at the consumption and dining terminology of days passed. World’s Fair and Hemisfair ‘68 documents shed light on a part of San Antonio’s history wholly unknown to my age bracket. I discovered two exceptional editions of The Houston Chronicle in storage here: An original World War II “V-E Day” Victory in Europe print and a rather exciting “Man on the Moon” print complete with famous quote. The age of materials ranged from the early 1600s to present time. Days later I found myself looking over land titles entirely in German, whose only provenance or explanation was their early 17th century dates, as I do not read German. My most interesting discovery was a box labeled “Slave Documents”. In it, amidst many pro and anti slavery cartoons and news clippings from the early days of dissent, was a bill of sale for a 19 year old girl, with price and residence listed quite clearly. The difficulty started when I had to put my curiosity aside and complete the tasks at hand.

While wearing gloves to control any damage oils from my skin might cause, I measured and recorded a general description for each document. The measurements were used to order custom sleeves and boxes of archival quality, and the descriptions were taken to help the incoming archivist revise the collection’s organization. After two weeks of recording this information, and another week or so of waiting for supplies, I insured that every single slip of paper, leather bound ledger book, and newspaper were protected. After each individual piece was protected, I duplicated the labels for the document boxes and transferred every piece into brand new, custom size, archival quality boxes. Ignoring the sheer quantity of documents, there were a few unexpected difficulties in this process. Some books were so fragile that to move them would threaten their disintegration. Wax seals, metal decorations, and wooden bolsters made accurately measuring and safely bagging documents a painstaking process.

As I progressed through the shelves, I understood why a professional archivist recently joined the staff. Owing in large part to the age of the collection and to the inevitable staffing limitations of a museum, staff recognized that the collection required a substantial organizational overhaul. This collection had been acquired over such a long period of time that droves of collections staff and many department heads had come and gone, lowering any chance at continuity. I recorded every piece of information I could, noted duplicate or incorrect box titles, and preserved the labeling in an effort to aid the new archivist. All of the work with these documents was done in preparation for their re-housing in the new Collections facility directly adjacent to the museum. Museum crowds and inclement weather determined when we could move these newly preserved documents to their new homes. Using a cart with shock absorbing tires, Kelly, Stefan, Leslie Meyer and I moved nearly all of the historical documents in two short weeks. I plan on returning as a volunteer to help complete this process and enjoy the sight of new shelving filled with matching boxes and neatly printed labels.

Historical Photographs, Stefan Barker

The photo room is where I spent the majority of my time. The room itself wasn’t large and there were no windows. A large safe on one wall contained historical guns and various paintings. There were two tables and numerous filing cabinets that contained photographs documenting much of the history of San Antonio. They also documented many important aspects of American history like early actors and actresses, gunslingers, and early stores. The cabinets were divided up by categories with files stored in alphabetical order. I was only able to rework three full cabinets before my internship was complete. Most of the photos themselves were originals but the room also contained a large number of reproductions which were used for exhibit displays at one point. The reproductions only served as an obstruction as they were constantly in the way and had to be moved every time I started a new project. Leaning along the wall were 25 to 30 framed, panoramic photographs all by a man named, “Eugene Omar Goldbeck”. This man was well known for his panoramic photographs, and based on the collection the Witte Museum possesses, he worked a lot with large military groups as subject matter.

As mentioned above, the biggest problem when working in the photo room was space. There were objects everywhere and often more than one person working in the same space. The job itself wasn’t really bad, but it tended to be monotonous. The photos were stored inside folders which were housed in large filing cabinets. Every single folder needed to be completely replaced as they’d grown old and were in poor condition.

When handling photographs, gloves were worn at all times and could only be moved by handling the corners or edges. Each photo was placed in a new acid free manila folder all the while making a list detailing the contents of every folder. There were a few problems doing this though. Since many people have worked on these folders overtime, there was inconsistency in quality and order. Some folders were written in terrible cursive handwriting and could not be indentified save for a few random letters. Sometimes it felt a lot like solving a puzzle on “Wheel of Fortune”. Other folders were written in terrible cursive handwriting as well as being in Spanish. In cases like that I was told to simply look at the photo and describe it. The other problem was that some folders were in the wrong location altogether. This is one of the reasons behind the job at hand. Upon completing a cabinet, all the folders went into a box and were moved to the new building and stored on a shelf for the archivist to sift through. I also worked on properly storing panoramic photos. The panoramic photographs are in one of two frames, historic or modern. The panoramic photographs in historic frames were not to be removed and were simply wrapped in foam and sealed in a long box. The panoramic photographs in the modern frames had to be removed and stored. Once a photograph is removed it is then laid flat in a long box. Multiple unframed panoramic photographs can be stored together by layering acid-free tissue between each photograph.

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About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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