It was as if I had walked into the middle of a professional cliché: crouched in the musty attic of MoMA PS1, I sifted through beaten-up boxes of institutional flotsam. I was attempting to survey the remaining materials to be included in The Records of MoMA PS1, which will open to the public at the end of 2012. Even though my colleague had brought in nearly 450 boxes of archival materials two years prior, MoMA PS1’s active programming schedule and labyrinthine architecture ensured that clutches of potential “archival gold” turned up unexpectedly on a regular basis.
On this particular occasion, the buried treasure was hiding in plain sight. Exhibition posters, some dating back to the museum’s early years and not yet included in the archives, sat in a disheveled stack on a worktable. Later, in the basement, I unlocked cabinets full of T-shirts, flip-flops, and tote bags—merchandise and freebies from the annual Warm Up summer series—and cases of unsent postcards and announcements advertising long-past exhibitions. I had expected that there would be a few handfuls of intriguing brochures or postcards, but nothing prepared me for autographed posters and a carton of black rubber duckies with “P.S.1/MoMA” emblazoned on their behinds.
You might wonder why an archivist would be interested in dated publicity materials and trinkets—aren’t archivist supposed to be more concerned with yellowing handwritten letters and other one-of-a-kind papers? For the most part, archives do largely consist of unique documents generated over the course of a person’s life or an institution’s history. However, ephemera, a term that describes a broad spectrum of mass-produced printed materials like posters, postcards, and even merchandise, also constitutes a valuable portion of archival collections.
As we have become more of a disposable culture, our collective history has increasingly come to be embodied in things that we throw away without a second thought: posters are pasted and papered over, unsolicited snail mail goes straight into the trash, and exhibition guides end up crumpled on the bottoms of our bags. Even in an era that purports to be “green” and “paperless,” cheaply printed or manufactured materials make up a remarkable portion of our information landscape.
This is especially the case for a an organization such as MoMA PS1, which, from over 1000 exhibitions and events combined, has produced an extraordinary amount of ephemera over its 40-year history. Postcards, brochures, ticket stubs, and the like help inform our understanding of MoMA PS1’s evolving sense of self, not to mention assist in substantiating exhibition dates and participants. Such ephemeral artifacts compose the variegated, ubiquitous, and often-overlooked milieu that gives context to an archive’s more “precious” materials and illuminates the collection as a whole.
The Records of MoMA PS1 are currently being processed by the Museum Archives thanks to a generous grant from the Leon Levy Foundation. The Records are currently closed to the public, but documents concerning MoMA PS1 and its 40-year history will be available to researchers at the end of 2012. Keep an eye out for more posts on The Records of MoMA PS1 until then!