Archivist, by any other name

My in-laws, when asked what we do for a living, tell folks that my husband teaches and that I work in a museum library. In truth, he works as a leadership consultant in a children’s hospital, and I am an archivist.

The archives at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) is a library of sorts. We do organize and store stuff then help researchers find and use that stuff. However our stuff is not library books, but rather papers, diaries and scrapbooks, photos (more than 200,000, at last count) and artifacts.

Need a model of the Beck Building? We’ve got it. What about a photo of our 1995 sculpture exhibition at the White House or of Bayou Bend in a rare Houston snow?  We’ve got that, too. Although our main concern as an institutional archive is maintaining the historical record of the museum, we also house the papers of people and organizations affiliated with the museum, the city, and the local art community. That includes the Sally Walsh papers (modern interior design), the Art Guys Clothes Make the Man Archive (performance art), and the Manfred Heiting papers (the history of photography). While much of my time is spent removing staples (they rust!) and refoldering and labeling (pencils only in the archives, please), you never know when some researcher will come asking after a groundbreaking shovel or a tee shirt decorated with Cai Guoqiang’s unique gunpowder art.

If pressed, I’d say our oddest item is Maggie Thatcher’s lipstick print on a dinner napkin, saved from the dinner at Bayou Bend on the occasion of the Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations, 1990 (see the cringe-worthy image above). Of greater interest to researchers (and more typical of our collection) is a handwritten account, shown here, of the first meeting of the Houston Art League in 1900, the precursor to what today is the MFAH. That’s a history worth preserving.

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