To those who need to wade through the digital and physical maze of archives, they can seem either entirely self-explanatory or hopelessly confusing. When I say maze, I’m not kidding: archives are measured in square feet. When an institution like the Getty Research Institute acquires an archive—typically a collection of papers of various kinds such as letters, documents, printed matter, and so on—it’s not all neatly organized and arranged, yet; that’s the institution’s job. It often takes years to properly sort through the ephemera that’s left on literal and digital desktops.

In conjunction with the Szeemann Digital Seminar, an international digital consortium focused around the recently acquired Harald Szeemann Archive, we’re chronicling the myriad of adventures had in the archives by people in different roles here at the Getty, including archivists (of course), scholars, art historians, curators, and beyond. From misinterpreting a finding aid to carefully planning how to catalogue a piece so that the right researcher can find it later, we hope these perspectives elucidate the mysteries behind archival work.

Strategies for Interpreting and Navigating Institutional Archives

Nancy Enneking, Getty Institutional Archivist

Hollinger boxes of Getty papers labeled in pencil as belonging to J. Paul Getty's records

Boxes of J. Paul Getty’s records—part of the Getty’s vast Institutional Archives

Any researcher walking into an archive is presented with collections that have been consciously selected for preservation. These materials have been deemed important enough to be worth the considerable costs of making them physically and digitally accessible: archival staff, time, space, and systems. Not everything can or should be saved, so what kind of considerations go into the selection process?

Since the Getty was founded, staff have produced tens of thousands of feet of paper records and, increasingly, petabytes of digital content. Only a small percentage is kept for the archives—it’s our job at the Getty’s Institutional Archives to decide what that is. Boiled down, what we do save is content that contributes to the narrative of: 1) the Getty as custodian of cultural heritage; 2) the Getty as a contributor to the ongoing practice of art history; and 3) the Getty as a functioning and evolving arts institution.

These are primary criteria for a few reasons. First, the Getty has physical custody of unique and irreplaceable cultural heritage material from around the world—much of which predates the organization and all of which will hopefully outlast it. Because we are responsible for the physical conservation of cultural heritage objects and sites, it’s profoundly important that we document what we’ve done. Next, we also need to document how we encourage and engage in contributing to the intellectual landscape surrounding this cultural heritage material through exhibition, publication, and instruction. Finally, we want to preserve information that will aid in the ongoing management and operations of the Getty itself.

But how do these tenets affect what the institutional archives look like and how they function? While they are the guiding principles that govern what we strive to document, the actual records are not created and organized this way and never will be; they are business records, organically created by departments and individuals, which only show pieces of the puzzle and are of varying quality. Choosing exactly how much, of what, and from whom, to keep of these materials is a constant challenge—and gamble. We work hard to select the best records we have (paper or digital) from the parts of the Getty that fulfill these tenets, but there is rarely one holistically explanatory document and X almost never marks the spot. For example, a topical word search might direct you to a seemingly comprehensive folder of records from an organization’s director, when the real gold mine of information you’re looking for may be in the records of someone who worked closely with the director, but did not hold a directorial position.

How does an archives user work around this complexity? Diversify your research strategies and keyword searches, instead of sticking to just one method. Think expansively, be sure to read descriptive guides, and to talk to the archives staff—because of their contextual knowledge of the archive and those involved with creating it, they can help direct your research in more accurate ways than you might have thought of on your own.

Reconstructing Ephemeral Art through Archives

Anja Foerschner, Art Historian

Two pieces of three-hole punch lined paper with an artist's handwritten notes and simple sketches of actors and theatrical props

Notes and drawings for “The Incorporate Vigil” performance, 1977–78, Barbara T. Smith. The Getty Research Institute, 2014.M.14. Courtesy of Barbara T. Smith

Accessing an archive provides scholars with primary-source, “unfiltered” information on an artist’s inner thoughts and external obstacles. Because an artist’s ephemera (things like their notes, diaries, sketches, correspondence, personal photographs, and research files) supplement, expand, and sometimes change our notion of a public figure or a work of art, working with an archive is an interesting, instructive, and—at times—irritating task for scholars. In the face of this amalgam of information, the scholar’s challenge is to select and vet the material useful for our purpose.

For scholars who specialize in performance art, like me, the archive presents an especially invaluable resource: it constitutes the only way by which an ephemeral event—a performance that took place at a unique time in a unique space in the past—can be studied. However, the value of archiving performance art remains highly debated in art historical scholarship. Many researchers argue against it on that grounds that it is potentially counterproductive to one of the main ideological tenets of performance art: to create art that negates art-market principles and commercial value. Still, archiving the tangible materials of intangible art is the only way this important, ephemeral art can be inscribed into art history.

Among the numerous, seminal performance archives in the Getty Research Institute’s Special Collections are the papers of California feminist artist Barbara T. Smith. Studying the physical artifacts of Smith’s performances reveals the elaborate thought processes behind them. For example, documents from “The Vigil/Incorporate,” a 1978 collaborative performance with fellow Californian artist Suzanne Lacy, contain countless handwritten notes, drawings, letters, and interviews with the artists. The performance, a two-part event, featured the artists dressed as an elderly woman and a little girl, respectively, sitting in beds in the gallery with their audience for an entire night. As the evening progressed, the artists approached each other, both physically and psychologically, by writing their inner monologue on the gallery walls until they met at 4am. Above them, suspended from the ceiling, hung a lamb carcass that they would cook and eat in the second part of the performance the next day. Without the archival material documenting this artwork, the impressive complexity of the performance—enriched by the artists’ thoughts and intellectual exchange—would be lost.

In addition, Smith’s documents (such as scripts for her performances, sketchbooks, and personal diaries) give us insight into her personal struggles. In particular, they detail her thoughts about what performance meant to her as she left her life as a wife and mother to become an artist. As she wrote in 1977 in her script for a performance entitled “Ordinary Life Pt. 2”: “…the performances had been responses to social situations relating to my place in the world….Though the impulses started earlier, my real performances began in the year when I got divorced and represented my way of finding a new beginning in life. To establish a sense of being and identity when I had none.”

Artists’ archives, especially those documenting time-sensitive works, present remarkable opportunities for researchers to find materials and information that will allow them to paint a more complete—and nuanced—picture of an artist and to ensure that ephemeral art has a lasting place in art history.

A photocopied film script cover shows the face of a woman with her hands up, screaming

Cover of script for “An Ordinary Life, Pt. 2,” 1977, Barbara T. Smith. The Getty Research Institute, 2014.M.14. Courtesy of Barbara T. Smith

A film script is open to a page typed in dense, hand-typewritten text that begins, "This is the second part of a two-part performance."

Script for “An Ordinary Life, Pt. 2,” 1977, Barbara T. Smith. The Getty Research Institute, 2014.M.14. Courtesy of Barbara T. Smith

Using Exhibitions to Bring Archival Stories to Light

Maristella Casciato, Curator, and Johnny Tran, Curatorial Assistant

Two pieces of yellowed paper side by side, featuring sketches of modern buildings in graphite

Sketches and layout for Mario Federico Roggero’s book, 1951, Erich Mendelsohn. Pencil on tracing paper. The Getty Research Institute, Gift of Schiller Family Trust. © 2017 Schiller Family Trust / Peter Schiller, Trustee, and Courtesy Daria Joseph, the Erich and Luise Mendelsohn Estate

Archives are repositories. They secure perennity to evidence. They are the place where the origin of what could have been (and what may never have happened or what has disappeared) is recorded. Some archives are even kept sealed for a very specific period of time. Sealed or unsealed, when they’re not being poured over in reading rooms, archives live in vaults, secluded, far from daily light, treasured and protected—and at the same time forgotten.

For curators, opening an archive is like opening Pandora’s box. Lifting the lid can be risky. When do lift it, we accept the consequences of those risks—all for the sake of making new stories discernable and discoverable.

The act of storytelling is key for curators to be able to make sense of—or to activate, as we say—the layers in daunting stacks of documents. Each layer in the stacks is the sedimentation of many stories, which have the potential to reveal truths about artists and art history. They are the embodiment of exchanges between artists, dealers, and loved ones. When these documents are dusted off, words, lines, and images bubble to the surface.

Consider the example of the German architect Erich Mendelsohn (1887–1953) and a young scholar who wanted to publish a book about his work, Mario Federico Roggero. The archives at the Getty Research Institute (GRI), which contains boxes of the full exchange between the two, reveals in great detail the nature of the two thinkers’ relationship. When Roggero’s book about Mendelsohn was eventually published in 1952, what remained invisible was its backstory: how the two actually collaborated. The archive, replete with multitudinous exchanges—notes, telegrams, and letters—brings to light more than half a century later, how their relationship deepened as the book grew closer to completion. A folder of sketches found in another, but related, archive further corroborated this interpretation. Thanks to these documents, we now know that Mendelsohn had routinely sent to the young Roggero the layout of each page, including sketches of his buildings. Basically, the master had retraced his own career and offered a fresh view of his design approach in his correspondences with Roggero. Through the examination of these archives, the story of the fabrication of Roggero’s book has found new life in 2017.

For curators, re-telling well-known stories is just as important as completing the unfinished ones. One of the most utilized archives at the GRI is the Julius Shulman (1910–2009) Photography Archive. With over 500 linear feet of photography and other media, the images showcase Shulman’s distinct perspective on Los Angeles as a beacon of modernity and creativity. From as early as the 1930s, Shulman documented LA’s transformation into a modern metropolis as many architects experimented in designing housing, civic buildings, and commercial works. Without Shulman, LA would not be LA. And without LA, Shulman would not be Shulman. Because this archive elucidates this intimate relationship between the city and its photographer, numerous publications and exhibitions have been staged throughout the world featuring its materials, with two notable shows at the Getty featuring Shulman (Julius Shulman, Modernity and the Metropolis and Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940–1980).

Black and white photograph of two men standing and looking at a large photograph of the interior of a modern building

Architectural photographer Julius Shulman (at right). Photograph by Kenneth Johansson and Keystone photography. The Getty Research Institute, 2004.R.10. © J. Paul Getty Trust

For curators, archives are vital to both discovering and telling stories. Exhibitions allow us to share the stories we discover in the archive with a broader audience, beyond the walls of special collections.

Archives as Sources for Oral History Interviews

Pietro Rigolo, Historian

I have been working on the Harald Szeemann papers held at the Getty Research Institute since 2013, and am part of the curatorial team for the upcoming exhibition Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions (on view February 6–May 6, 2018). Over the last year, we’ve conducted about 30 interviews with various artists, curators, and collaborators who worked with Szeemann throughout his long career. We traveled throughout Europe and the US to speak to them. The footage we collected from the interviews will be displayed in the upcoming exhibition in the form of three brief documentaries, and six interview excerpts will be published in the show’s accompanying catalog. Furthermore, all this material (the footage, as well as its transcriptions and translations) has been cataloged by our institutional archivists and is now available online in our digital repository.

Street view of an elegant, centuries-old two-story stucco-and-brick structure on a small Venice street

Venice, Italy. Palazzo Trevisan degli Ulivi, which houses the offices of the Swiss Consulate, where I interviewed artist Nedko Solakov during the opening of the 2017 Venice Biennial. Photo: Pietro Rigolo

I personally conducted six interviews in Turin, Milan, and Venice on two trips in Europe between November 2016 and May 2017. I talked with artists Giuseppe Penone, Nedko Solakov, Grazia Toderi, and Gilberto Zorio, as well as with curators Germano Celant and Agnes Kohlmeyer. Celant, Penone, and Zorio were involved in some of Szeemann’s most celebrated exhibitions in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including When Attitudes Become Form (1969) and documenta 5 (1972). Interviewing them proved to be particularly useful for understanding Szeemann’s connections with the radical art movement Arte Povera, as well as the larger picture of the international contemporary art network developing in Europe at that time. With Kohlmeyer, Solakov, and Toderi, practitioners of a younger generation, I had the chance to focus on Szeemann’s later career, particularly on the Venice Biennials that Szeemann curated in 1999 and 2001.

Besides conducting the interviews, on those trips I also I met with Szeemann’s family and other collaborators, conducted research for my essay in the exhibition catalog, and worked on securing some loans of objects to the exhibition from local institutions and collectors.

Standing at the entrance to a verdant footpath lined with grape vines and trees in fall color. In the near distance, misty mountains

Intragna, Switzerland. On the way to Peter Bissegger’s house, accessible only on foot with a short hike. Bissegger, a scenographer and model maker, collaborated with Szeemann on many exhibitions for over twenty years. Photo: Pietro Rigolo

Before our travels and interviews, the Szeemann archive proved to be a fundamental tool, first of all for understanding who among the hundreds of Szeemann’s contacts and collaborators were the closest to him—and therefore, who was most essential to interview. Studying the Szeemann papers also helped me to formulate specific and historically accurate questions. In fact, I often photographed letters, emails, or photographs and carried them with me to the interviews as references. This helped in some cases to trigger the interviewee’s memory on a specific topic. In other cases, the person I was talking with often welcomed me with their own photos, faxes, and letters written by Szeemann, which helped me to reconstruct the events with materials I had never seen before.

Now that our recordings are deposited safely on our servers, these interviews represent a key addition to the Szeemann holdings, offering direct records of many relationships the curator fostered over the decades. These spontaneous recollections, based on emotional responses and distant memories, help us observe things from new perspectives and reconsider our assumptions. They have enhanced the already rich archive, and I hope they will prove to be a useful tool for future students and researchers as well.

Making Meaning from Digitized Archives

Weronika Malek, Graduate Student at the University of Chicago and Participant in the Szeemann Digital Seminar

Hand-drawn floor plan of a multi-room gallery space with annotations in black pen

Entire folders from the Szeemann Archives were rapidly digitized for students’ use during the Szeemann Digital Seminar. Here, floor plan for the centennial of Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, 2000, Harald Szeemann. The Getty Research Institute, Harald Szeemann papers, 1892–2010

As a first-year MA student in the humanities with a focus on art history, I did not have much archival research experience prior to working with the Harald Szeemann Archive at the Getty. While I was sure that archives would eventually become a part of my research work, I wasn’t sure if I was ready for the experience.

Since students usually produce research essays in a relatively short, semester-long time frame, we often begin our projects with a desired outcome in mind. Archives, with their vastness and the potential for finding random information—information that is often very interesting, but unrelated to our projects—present a challenge to that model of working. Archives can be overwhelming. How do you find what you need in an archive without getting lost in all the material? Moreover, the “hands-on” experience with the archival documents can be stressful, especially if a student has only a short period of time to physically stay and work at the archive.

Taking the graduate course Before the Global: The Emergence of an International Art World, taught by Professor Christine Mehring at the University of Chicago, allowed me to work with the Getty’s Harald Szeemann Archive digitally. Having remote access to the archive for the entire quarter (September–December 2017) made it possible to flexibly incorporate archival work into my schedule as a student. We could tag and organize the digital files according to our needs, ask Getty staff for advice, and work with them from anywhere at any time. Because only a part of the archive was available online, we also had the opportunity to request the digitization of two folders of material per month.

A woman in her 20s sits in a home setting, smiling as she types on a MacBook

Weronika Malek participated in the Szeemann Digital Seminar from her home base at the University of Chicago, alongside students from the Academy of Visual Arts, Leipzig, and the University of California, Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of and © Weronika Malek

While this was an extremely helpful and rare opportunity to gain access to important archival documents, my own experience working with digitized materials was challenging at first. For example, I had not realized that a folder I requested had materials pertaining to multiple past exhibitions, so I received a lot of random files unrelated to my topic. The very next digitized folders, however, became the most important materials for my project.

Students in our seminar worked independently on projects related to their particular interests and language skills, but we met collectively every week to discuss the postwar international art world through the lens of scholarship and the Szeemann archive. In addition to these more formal academic discussions, we also had “workshop” time in which we shared our diverse experiences with the archive and honed our archival skills through exercises in translation and deciphering handwriting, for example. As so happens when working in archives, I would often come across materials that weren’t pertinent to my own research. Instead of casting them aside, however, I’d bring them to these workshop sessions. Often, these materials that were irrelevant for my work would turn out to be very relevant for my peers. This way, we had a sort of collaborative experience of working in the archive, something impossible in situ.

Hand-drawn floor plan in thick black pen on white paper showing an overhead view of 11 rooms, each labeled with a word in Polish

Sketch for the centennial of Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, 2000, Harald Szeemann. The Getty Research Institute, Harald Szeemann papers, 1892–2010

The seminar structure encouraged us to interact with the archive as much as possible, without imposing any specific projects at the start. While regular graduate seminars require a finished research paper for the final grade, Professor Mehring instead asked us to spend as much time with the archive as possible. Our task was to find a direction for our archival research from within the archive itself and, by the end of the class, come up not with a finished research project but with a proposal for a research project, one that had developed out of and would incorporate our archival finds. Thanks to the broad scope of this assignment, I approached the archive with an open mind and without the initial pressure of looking for a “finished” project.

My personal research outside the seminar focuses on nineteenth-century figurative painting, so I went into the class expecting to do a side project about Szeemann’s exhibitions of minimalist and conceptual art. However, unexpectedly, I encountered materials about the exhibition Szeemann curated for the centennial of Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, Poland, in 2000. The exhibition engaged with painting of the 1910s, the Polish School of Posters, and contemporary art. Current publications about that exhibition focus on the political scandal around a sculpture by contemporary Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, which completely outshined the rest of the exhibition. The archival materials (floor plans, correspondence, Szeemann’s notes about the artwork selection) allowed me not only to reconstruct what the exhibition looked like beyond Cattelan’s piece, but also to trace the escalation of the scandal. I was, very serendipitously, able to bridge my archival work with the main trajectory of my own research that analyzes the formation of national myths in art.

Thanks to my experience with the Szeemann archive I can now be optimistic that—despite the archive’s overwhelming broadness, and with some patience—archives in the future could be potential troves for informing my research with new narratives.


Coming up next in Archive Adventures:

The Project Manager | March 2018