Knowing When To Say "No:" Small Archive To Museum Collection

by Lou Liberty | Sep 10, 2012

We all know better than to store anything of value in a basement.

Even in desert areas like New Mexico, basements are the worse place to keep valuables, especially if they are cloth or paper. Basements are notorious for harboring unwanted critters of all types that can do damage to goods. Basements are also prone to water damage, even in a dry land.

The only exception to this rule is a purpose built, humidity and temperature controlled archival basement vault. Of course, these are expensive and exist only in well-endowed archival institutions.

Independent School Archives are not built according to archival conservation and preservation standards. The Society of American Archivists has numerous articles addressing the proper facilities and storage of archival materials. One of the best is its guide for colleges and universities.

In reality, school archives usually have to compete for precious storage space at their institutions because they are often an "add on" item not central to the primary mission of the school. Frequently, someone wants the archive to be put in a basement, considered a throw away space, a pressure that most archivists are fortunately able to resist.

Damaged Donations and Conservation

School archivists do have some training in conserving and preserving materials. Although most of this training is through workshops and sources like those provided by the Society of American Archivists, it is usually sufficient to the needs of the school.

What the school archivist has no control over is items donated to the archive that have been stored in a basement. They are often in need of major conservation and preservation.

With limited funds and facilities, the best the school archivist can do is clean up the materials, doing as little harm as possible, and repackage them in the best archival containers the school can afford. Then they can be stored in an area of the school archive best suited to their preservation.

Most of the time these conservation and preservation efforts are sufficient for the needs of the school. There are occasions, however, in which the task is beyond the school archivist's abilities and resources. In these circumstances, if the items being donated are also of significant historical as well as artistic importance beyond the scope of the school, what should the archivist do?

Laura Gilpin and The Sandia School

I was confronted with this very problem as Archivist at Sandia Prep School.
The Sandia School, originally a girls' day and boarding school, had been founded in 1932 by Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms. It was named after the iconic mountains to the east of Albuquerque. The school closed in 1942 because of WWII. In 1966, the school was reestablished as Sandia Prep School by Mrs. Simms' niece-in-law, Barbara Young Simms.

As Archivist at Sandia Prep, I was privileged to receive many contributions from alumnae of the original Sandia School. Most of the items were in exceptional condition and they provide a rich document and artifact heritage for the school.

In 1936, Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms accomplished the building of a permanent campus for her girls' school. It is now an historic landmark. She did not stint on the physical facilities housing the Sandia School.

Believing that beauty and history were important to the well being of a community, she hired many New Mexico artists to build and decorate her school. Among these were the architect John Gaw Meem and the muralist Olive Rush. She also hired numerous local Hispanic and Indian craftspeople to make the decorative tinwork, ironwork and hand painted tiles used throughout the buildings.

As the daughter of the coal baron, Mark Hanna, Ruth Simms was immensely wealthy. She funded The Sandia School from her personal wealth in the midst of the Great Depression and provided several hundred jobs for her local community.

Upon completion of the facility, Mrs. Simms hired the renowned photographer, Laura Gilpin, to create a new brochure for The Sandia School. Gilpin took over two hundred photographs documenting the architecture and life of the school and its students. She also designed the school brochure.

As Sandia Prep Archivist, I accessed several copies of these beautiful brochures. When Mrs. Simms's niece, Ann Simms Clark, an alumna of The Sandia School, brought the original Gilpin photographs plus negatives for these brochures to the archive, I was astounded. She had discovered these treasures in her basement. Yes, alas, the basement!

At first, none of us understood what we really had. For Ann Clark, the items were just some old photographs of the school she didn't want to keep. In truth, she didn't know how they had ended up forgotten in her basement.

It soon became clear that the photographs and negatives constituted a heretofore unknown but valuable collection of Laura Gilpin's work. Having been lost in the basement for many years, numbers of the photographs and negatives were in deteriorating and damaged condition. Obviously, this exceptional and valuable collection was beyond the scope of Sandia Prep's ability to restore and preserve it.

Because of the historical and artistic significance of the collection, mere copying through digitization was not an option. The photographs themselves carried intrinsic value as Gilpin originals.

The Search For Knowledgeable Help

In addition to the obvious need for specialists regarding photography, art, and conservation, it became apparent that legal advice was also needed. These important Laura Gilpin photographs had to be restored and preserved. A proper home outside of Sandia Prep had to be found for them. The process had to be fair to all parties involved with them.

At the time Ann Simms Clark brought the Laura Gilpin photos and negatives to Sandia Prep, the school was fortunate to have as its president of the Board of Trustees a person with numerous connections in the arts. She immediately went into action.

First she met with the Simms family and then she approached the curators of the photography collection at the Museum of New Mexico on behalf of the family and Sandia Prep. Aware of the uniqueness of the Sandia School Gilpin photographs, the Museum was interested in acquiring the collection.

Legal Aspects Regarding The Collection

The only question that remained was the transfer of the photos to the museum. There were several ways in which this could be done. The Gilpin photos could be an outright gift. The concept of a gift had many attractive aspects as well as tax advantages.

In the end, the Simms family was unwilling make an outright donation of the photographs as was Sandia Prep. Both held a proprietary interest in the materials. Although the family and the school very much wanted to insure the restoration and conservation of the Gilpin photographs as well as share them with the larger community, they saw the works as distinctive of Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms' vision, her contribution to education and the community at large. Both the Simms family and Sandia Prep wished to preserve that connection.

What was finally arranged was a permanent loan of the Gilpin Sandia School photos to the Museum of New Mexico. In this way, the Simms family and the school retained title to the photos although they would be permanently housed in the Museum of New Mexico Photography Collection In return, the Museum would undertake the expense and work of conserving them.

Public Exhibition

Having been part of the team that successfully negotiated the permanent loan of the Laura Gilpin photographs to the Museum of New Mexico, I was greatly relieved to know that they were in safe hands. Some items just don't belong in a small school archive. It is important to know when to say "no". When the Museum of New Mexico mounted its debut exhibition of the photographs, I was honored to write the essay for the show's catalog.

The opening for Laura Gilpin: Sandia School 1936-1941 - An Untold Chapter was a gala affair attended by many of the graduates of The Sandia School as well as Gilpin and photography enthusiasts. Most importantly, the exhibition was also a celebration of the successful transfer of historically important and significant artwork from the private to the public sphere.


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