I love finding the dead. Not in a way that will start the apocalypse or American Horror Story. Instead, it’s historical research. I’m finding people who had loose ends, who left a story behind tied to some event or object in a museum to have a deeper understanding. It’s about resolving the past and letting museums move forward. It’s also a very common practice in the arts. From researching people for historic films, to writing biographies of famous artists, to understanding a museum collection, finding out everything you can about a dead person is crucial to our current understanding.
Putting something so bluntly makes the underlying struggle of trying to comprehend the past seem even more important. This was something I hadn’t considered before I worked at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College as a Student Curatorial Assistant. I was often tasked with finding all I could about a specific topic. From recently acquired works, or works to be purchased, I always jumped in with gusto to find that little dinner party nugget.
“Did you know that in 18th century England women didn’t wear rouge like the French did and the French called them provincial for it?”
“Did you know that Degas was really possessive over his frames, which he painted himself to match his works perfectly? One of his friends reframed his work and Degas took the painting off the wall and walked out of a dinner party, never to speak to that friend again.”
While these stories are rather uninteresting in and of themselves, they create context. I now look at the divide between French and England, and the importance of individual artistry much more than I did before that research. These are the stories of the dead, whose disagreements helped to shape our notions of what is important today.
There is a limit to this kind of work though, because it tends to stay in the heads of those who know. It’s too esoteric for most people to really care. While the work is important in recovering the details of history that really allow us to get closer to understanding the past, it has little impact on the day to day life of the public. So there’s a significantly more practical side to this recovery of the dead.
This last summer I was lucky enough to learn from the Registration Department at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. They gave me the task of finding loans that had fallen through the cracks and changes in policies over the museum’s history and trying to find the next of kin of the original lender. These are objects that the museum is storing but does not have clear legal ownership. This can be for many reasons: the owner may have moved and forgot to sign the deed of gift, the owner may have died and didn’t include next steps, or the museum had a change in policy that means the object needs updated paperwork. Like most, if not all museums, there is not a single person devoted to resolving these tricky problems. As important but non-urgent, museums choose not to pursue hiring someone to deal with this kind of project.
It was one my favorite projects. I would look at ledgers dating back to 1918, cross reference them with computer and hard files to see if the objects were still in the collection. From there, I went to the great Google Machine. I would take the name of the original owner and their last known address and see what stuck. The results would vary from the owner being on Linkedin and just having to find their work address, to an hour of clicking through links. I was doing ad-hoc genealogy to unlock the history of the object, to return it to its home. There was one case who I found the last remaining child of the owner, through her now deceased brother’s family history blog. Most of the time, the family has no idea about this heirloom the museum has been housing for them for decades.
These kinds of projects remind me of the importance of research as a labor of love. It’s tying up moments of confusion, oversights and mistakes in a way that helps the museum by either reducing its unneeded collection or by giving wanted objects a legal home. It’s been done on a huge scale by returning art looted by the Nazis to the descendents of families destroyed by the Holocaust, to objects stolen by white colonizers going home to their country of origin. Even with the time lost, finding the dead and their stories is always a worthwhile endeavor.
And now my resume can read, “I find dead people really fast.”