Archive Spotlight

Mimi Lester

A panaromic view of a large office space with shelves

The Studio Museum in Harlem archive on the fifth floor of 144 West 125th Street

Photo: Mimi Lester

Arranging and describing an archival collection is called processing, and processing is ruled by a foundational principle called respect des fonds. The French phrase fuses two ideas: that where the material comes from should inform where it ends up going and how it is classified, and that the original order of the material should be maintained as it is cataloged. Fundamentally, respect des fonds encourages the archivist to respect how creators documented their own experience. In other words, the where, how, and who of the archival material hints that the very essence of the records—why and how they exist—can tell us something about the creators. For communities and people that have had to collect, construct, and narrate their own stories outside of hegemonic culture, the process of self-documentation is particularly powerful.

This concept manifests most strikingly in the personal papers of an individual. When I worked on the archives of an artist who used photographic reproduction and manipulation to create grand-scale collages, I found that he used the same image dozens of times, except for one clipping among hundreds, which was marked, “Use once, only once!” Ask any archivist, and he or she will tell you their version of this story. The particularities of what we learn by thumbing through the detritus of a person’s life, cataloging it, and facilitating research, makes us feel as though we are unlocking secrets—not just about the creator’s humanity, but about humanity in general. One clipping at a time.

When I started my position as Museum Archivist at The Studio Museum in Harlem, it was immediately evident that from the Museum’s founding, the staff knew they were making history, and were determined to document it. What most impressed this upon me was the uniformity with which much of the archives were created. In personal collections, the archivist first surveys the material to understand or unlock some meaning in the original order, and then processes the collection based on her findings. Institutional archives are different than personal ones, since institutions have an inherent order that is reflected in the collection. The trick is that individuals make up institutions, and every person organizes their desks, their memos, and their own boxes of stuff they deemed important enough to keep, differently. The archivist must balance the order of the individual with the order of the institution.

Multiple blue binders with multicolor tabs between aged paper inside a cardboard box.

Ledger files from the office of the Director, organized by month. Photo: Mimi Lester

"In other words, the Museum’s records exude a consciousness of history-making."

The creation of institutional archives, I have found, is often accidental. Institutions that were in operation through the mid-1980s almost always have impeccable documentation thanks to the work of secretaries. Indeed, the files from the Studio Museum’s Director’s Office, until the early 1990s, are all bound in ledger books, organized by month, and have tables of contents that catalog each incoming piece of mail. But this is often produced by institutional recordkeeping practices rather than intentional historicizing. When this type of secretarial work became less common, the building blocks of an institutional archive were often composed of what was left in someone’s desk when they retired or moved offices. While there is evidence of this in the Studio Museum’s archive, most of the records have intentionality. They seem to be less of an individual’s record and more of a collective’s work through time. In other words, the Museum’s records exude a consciousness of history-making.

Entire sections of the archives of the Studio Museum have almost no trace of an individual creator. The best example is the curatorial red binders, which contain close to a full run of the Museum’s exhibition history. Binders date back from 1970 all the way to current and upcoming exhibitions. In an institutional archive, each person tends to leave a mark on the organization of the material he or she creates: some idea about how it should be stored and described. An archivist can mark the passage of time and staffing changes through evidence of how storage and descriptive standards evolved. Shockingly, each red binder at the Studio Museum is uniformly organized across the last forty-eight years. They contain loan forms; installation photography; correspondence with artists, lenders, and other institutions; checklists; and printed matter. Each category and binder is labeled, and each curator through the Museum’s history has upheld this order. Perhaps this seems unremarkable, but archivally speaking, it most certainly is not.

In addition to red binders, the Museum created blue, Black, and green binders. Blue binders tend to hold registration material, such as loan forms, condition reports, material related to crating and framing, and travel-related documentation. Black binders are similar to red ones, but are for exhibitions held off-site. My favorite, the green binders, are for inHarlem exhibitions, many of which have been held in public parks (hence the green). At this point it seems wrong not to admit that, like most archivists, I dislike binders. The plastic they are made of degrades over time, rings put strain on paper and eventually rust—not to mention the damage three-hole punches inflict on original documents. When binders are overstuffed, the rings no longer match up and the paper falls out of order and is damaged. As an archivist, the binders themselves are a challenge. But I have a deep appreciation for the devotion and commitment the Studio Museum staff has to using the binders as tools of self-documentation. Throughout the collection, sticky notes—also terrible for preservation—abound with quick memos: “To be filed in the red binder.”

It has been easy to practice respect des fonds while processing the red binders of the Museum. Provenance has of course been clear, and there can be no mistaking the original order of the records. What has been striking, though, is the systematic commitment to the established order of the binders. Because this is so unusual for institutional records, the intentionality is unmistakable. Honoring the previously established order indicates a selflessness among the individuals working at the Museum. Rather than trying to reinvent how order is approached, the institution’s work through the years has demonstrated respect for history and lineage. Along with the many monumental cultural shifts that occurred in 1968, the founding of the Studio Museum radically changed the notion of what an art museum could be, and what it could mean for a community. The individuals who worked to create this change knew that they were rewriting how history happens and, equally important, who owns that history and who has the right to tell it. The evidence of their work, the Studio Museum archive, is a historical narrative created by those who wanted to be sure that they were the ones to tell their own story.

—Mimi Lester

Brown boxes with red writing stacked and lined up again a windowed wall in an office.
Two shelves displaying large red labeled binders.

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Records of the office of the Director from the 1980s to the 1990s on the fifth floor of the 144 West 125th Street.
Photo: Mimi Lester

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Photo: Mimi Lester

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Red binders containing loan forms; installation photography; correspondence with artists, lenders, and other institutions; checklists; and printed matter.
Photo: Mimi Lester

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