Archives 101: An Introduction to Archival Processing

In this series, Phillips Manager, Archives and Library Resources Juli Folk and Digital Assets Librarian Rachel Jacobson explain the ins and outs of how archives work.

The previous “Archives 101” post introduced the concept of archival collections. Archives and special collections establish policies to guide what materials are accepted and preserved by an institution. Because every collection is unique and can include a variety of different materials, formats, and related information, they require varying levels of description, so the standards for archival organization are applied to best suit the needs of individual repositories. I will discuss the first few steps that occur after an archive is accessioned into a repository as a new collection, also understood as archival processing. In addition to including activities that promote preservation, processing also provides improved physical and intellectual access to the records. Generally speaking, during processing, materials are surveyed, arranged, described, and preserved for long-term storage with archival-quality housing.

Surveying the collection establishes an understanding of the contents of the collection and the physical state of the materials. During this step, it’s important to gather all contextual information (e.g., donor agreements, accession details, preliminary inventories) and prepare a standardized way to capture the details. The archivist will:

  • • Count the boxes, volumes, and items
  • • Review existing container labels
  • • Confirm the materials appear as expected
  • • Note any damage or special handling needs
  • • Identify existing groups of related materials

These steps may also help identify missing components and will aid in gathering the information needed to write detailed historical/biographical notes.

After the survey is complete, it is time to create a processing plan that intellectually arranges the collection into Series, and, if necessary, Subseries, usually determined by subject, function, or form. Series filing systems may be geographic, chronological, or alphabetical and a collection can include only a single series or many series. Intellectual arrangement decisions are based on the state of the collection and the needs of potential users, who can include museumgoers, researchers, art historians, students, and teachers. Intellectual arrangement also relies on two fundamental archival principles stated below.

Provenance refers to the individual or group that created or collected the items and dictates that records of different origins be kept separate to preserve their context. Establishing provenance is key to creating accurate and helpful accession records.

Original order refers to how the collection was organized when it was brought to the repository for accessioning. It often indicates how the record creator(s) considered, maintained, and used the materials. If the original order is useful and meaningful, then retaining it preserves existing relationships and evidentiary significance that will be helpful to collection users. If the original order is non-existent or not meaningful, then an archivist will likely suggest a new arrangement to better serve future researchers.

Before processing, the Duncan Phillips Directorial Correspondence was organized chronologically, in folders labeled only with the first letter for the correspondents within. This box contains all correspondence from 1954-1955 from individuals and businesses whose names begin with letters between A-L. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection Library & Archives.

This is an example where the original order was known but found to be unhelpful for users of the collection. As the label on the box describes, the original order of the Directorial Correspondence of Duncan Phillips was chronological and alphabetical by the correspondent’s name. However, this meant that a folder labeled ‘A’ would contain dozens of correspondents with the first letter ‘A’, making it difficult to pinpoint individuals. Therefore, it was determined that additional processing would help provide valuable information about individual correspondents. The arrangement is still chronological by correspondent, but individual correspondents have been separated into their own folder.

After processing, the Duncan Phillips Directorial Correspondence is organized alphabetically by correspondent, with multiple years arranged together, for ease of research. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection Library & Archives.

Surveying and arranging the materials provides all the information needed to describe the collection in a Finding Aid. Finding aids contextualize the materials and breadth of a collection, describing why it is important and unique. They contain detailed notes used by researchers to determine whether the contents of a collection may be useful to their research. We’ll discuss Finding Aids in more detail next!

Archives 101: What is an Archival Collection?

In this series, Phillips Manager, Archives and Library Resources Juli Folk and Digital Assets Librarian Rachel Jacobson explain the ins and outs of how archives work.

It’s usually fair to say that the average person is more familiar with libraries than archives. If that is the case for you, here are some helpful distinctions aimed at enhancing your next visit to The Phillips Collection Library & Archives.

Libraries hold published books and materials, which are secondary sources that were consciously created and intended to be distributed for review. Books are collected and circulated through libraries as individual items and are cataloged and organized according to standards that have been well-established for hundreds of years.

Archives are different in that they are made up of primary-source materials that were created over the course of normal daily business and life. Archival materials can include receipts, correspondence, photographs, ledgers, digital media, and related ephemera. In order to maintain their context, archival items are classified in aggregate as “collections,” instead of as standalone items.

The Phillips Collection Library & Archives holds numerous collections that include materials documenting the inner workings of the museum. Some items that may have seemed run of the mill at the time have since become treasures. For example, this undated handwritten note was left for Duncan Phillips at the front desk of the museum by Georgia O’Keeffe during one of her visits.

There are a variety of different kinds of archival collections. For example, institutional departmental collections manage and preserve the records of the business or institution. These collections exist to serve the needs of researchers and staff members, to document historical discussion and decisions over time, and to support strategic institutional goals. Two examples of these types of collections in our archive are the Records of the Music Department and the Exhibition History Records.

The Records of the Music Department consist of materials dated from 1925 and include correspondence, press clippings and reviews, photographs, concert programs, serial publications, pamphlets, press releases, and other ephemera pertaining to concerts and performers.

Archival boxes housing the Music Department records are organized chronologically, ready for research. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection Library & Archives

Exhibition History records are dated from the early 1900s and contain material that was created and collected by the Curatorial Department to support activities related to the research, planning, preparation, logistics, and catalogue for individual shows. The collections include articles, brochures, catalogues, checklists, correspondence, and reviews.

Photograph collections are compiled or created by individuals, families, or organizations and are preserved for their enduring evidentiary value and context. Our recently digitized Historic Photographs Collection is arranged chronologically with items that date from the late 1800s. The collection includes images of the museum building interior and exterior, the immediate and extended families of Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, art exhibitions, notable visitors, special events, and construction projects. The materials are in a variety of formats and sizes, with both color and black-and-white prints. This collection will be available digitally soon!

Duncan Phillips (left) and his younger brother Jim Phillips in the late 1800s. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection Library & Archives

Annex installation from the 1960s exhibition Sculpture Seen Anew: The Bronze Age to Brancusi, including works by Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection Library & Archives

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, which will focus on Archival Processing to describe the steps we take to make our collections more accessible and useful to researchers.

From the Archives: Duncan Phillips, Franz Bader, and Alma Thomas

Through archival materials, Associate Curator Renée Maurer explores the rich relationship between The Phillips Collection, Franz Bader, and Alma Thomas.

Austrian-born Franz Bader (1903-1994) fled Europe for the US in 1939 and settled in Washington, DC, where he worked at The Whyte Bookshop and Gallery located at 17th and H Streets. During the 1930s, the Whyte, The Phillips Collection, and the Howard University Gallery of Art, were among the few galleries in DC to acquire and exhibit the work of local living artists, including artists of color. Bader became director of Whyte Gallery in 1948, and then later opened Franz Bader Gallery in 1953. Duncan Phillips may have met Bader at Whyte Gallery. Archival correspondence indicates that he actively made purchases there, even acquiring examples by museum staff like Circus by John Gernand, who attended the Phillips Art School, worked with Alma Thomas’s teacher Robert Gates at American University, and served as the Phillips’s registrar and archivist.

Receipt for purchase of John Gernand, Circus, 1938, Oil on canvas, The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1939

The Phillipses and Bader also crossed paths at the museum. Bader later recalled to Duncan’s son Laughlin Phillips: “The beauty and informality of the Phillips Gallery has always meant so very much to me. Visiting it the first week after my arrival in this country helped to form my idea of America.” Duncan Phillips and Bader shared an interest in promoting DC’s arts community. In the 1950s Bader requested Phillips’s assistance with a traveling exhibition that featured work by Washington artists, supported by the United States Information Agency, and planned for Vienna, Bader’s hometown.

Through acquisitions and exhibitions, Phillips and Bader gave many Washington-based artists their first opportunities. Following the success of Alma Thomas’s first solo show at the Howard University Art Gallery in 1966, Bader became Thomas’s primary dealer. In 1968, he hosted an exhibition of Thomas’s paintings and watercolors, her first major one-person show at an established DC commercial art gallery.

In 1970, Bader presented paintings from Thomas’s Earth and Space series, two years before they went on view in the artist’s career defining retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In late 1971, while curating A Small Loan Exhibition of Washington Artists for the Phillips, Marjorie Phillips negotiated with Bader the loan of Thomas’s acrylic Atmosphere. Thomas’s last show at Franz Bader Gallery occurred in 1974, and it included two works that were on view in the Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful exhibition: Fiery Sunset, owned by Bader, and Horizon.

LEFT TO RIGHT: Alma Thomas, Fiery Sunset, 1973, Acrylic on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Alma Thomas, Horizon, 1974, Acrylic on paper, Henry H. and Carol Brown Goldberg

In 1976, two years before Thomas’s death, Bader donated to The Phillips Collection Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers. The archival letters below relate to the gift. Bader acknowledges to then director Laughlin Phillips that Thomas was pleased to have an example of her work at the museum and hoped “that this will enable people to enjoy the painting.” On Thomas’s carbon copy, in her papers at the Archives of American Art, Bader annotated the letter with “Congratulation Again.” Laughlin Phillips wrote to Bader that the Thomas painting is “a significant addition” and “we are extremely pleased to have it.”

Letter from Franz Bader to Laughlin Phillips

Letter from Laughlin Philips to Franz Bader

Writing to Thomas, Laughlin Phillips acknowledged the gift of Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, donated by Bader. He mentioned that the painting “has been hanging steadily since its arrival and bringing pleasure to staff and visitors alike” and remarked on his interest in her new work on view at the Corcoran. Later that year, the Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers joined the American Art from The Phillips Collection exhibition and toured several venues in the US.

Letter from Laughlin Phillips to Alma Thomas

In the fall of 1977, the Phillips hosted an exhibition of photographs by Franz Bader. Thomas attended the exhibition and kept the brochure.

Brochure for Franz Bader exhibition at The Phillips Collection