One of the challenging and fundamental responsibilities an archivist faces in his or her work is determining the “original order” of a person or organization’s records. Original order is instrumentally important in archives as it shows how the creator of the records functioned, why the records were created, and how she or he went about arranging them. Frequently, we must try to reconstruct how someone created his or her records and papers by uncovering patterns or trends inherent in the materials themselves. Sometimes records come to us already neatly labeled (although sometimes the labeling system does not exactly match up with the materials); other times we must start from scratch with items jumbled together in no immediately discernible order.
I began my work with the MoMA Archives in February as a project archivist tasked with processing two archival collections related to Conceptual art. My first encounter with my newest charge, the Seth Siegelaub Papers, surprised me. Siegelaub was a New York City–based gallery owner, independent curator, publisher, event facilitator, and seminal figure in the Conceptual art movement of the 1960s and 1970s. MoMA acquired his influential art collection and corresponding archives in June 2011. Like many archival collections, the donated Siegelaub Papers were accompanied by a general inventory of its contents. (Siegelaub’s was compiled through the hard work of Alexander Alberro, a Conceptual art scholar who was the first person to have extensive access to Siegelaub’s archives in the 1990s.) The term “notes” appeared numerous times throughout Alberro’s original inventory. I’ve seen many manifestations of the ambiguous meaning of “notes” in my work as an archivist before; the expression can encompass anything ranging from a wordless doodle on a napkin to a complete unpublished book manuscript. As I proceeded to survey the contents of the various temporary containers housing the documentation of Siegelaub’s brief but impressive career in the art world, one thing became extraordinarily clear to me.
Siegelaub’s note-taking is remarkable. Peppered throughout the collection, I found wonderful instances of his notes that I eventually christened “information packets,” which were comprised of various related items he stapled (and, in later years, sometimes taped) together. These packets contained extensive contextual information that built upon itself in chronological layers. A typical packet would start with a letter he received from someone. He would jot down a reminder note to himself to call the correspondent and then staple that note to the letter. He would write a follow-up note to himself describing the details of the resulting phone call (including date and/or time) and subsequently staple that to the previous note. He may have written a letter in response to that phone call, a carbon copy of which he would staple to the most recent note. Newspaper clippings, postcards, invitations to gallery openings and other events, sometimes even photographs—these, too, all found their way into Siegelaub’s packets. The results were rather exquisite stacks of stapled materials (sometimes several inches thick) reminiscent of a paper-based archaeological dig site, with the most recent materials at the top.
For the sake of conservation and preservation concerns, I did need to remove nearly all of the numerous staples and adhesives Siegelaub used, the majority of which had rusted completely to the point of crumbling and were beginning to degrade many of the materials they held together. In a way it was rather heartbreaking to undo a part of what makes the Siegelaub Papers so special. However, adhering to archival principles meant that the most important aspects of those packets, the context and the information, were preserved in the most sustainable way. With the rusted staples and degraded tape replaced with archival plastic clips and acid-neutral buffer paper, researchers will be able to have access, in perpetuity, to the invaluable context and insight provided by Siegelaub’s notes and self-documentation of his involvement in key thought processes of the Conceptual art world of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Seth Siegelaub Papers, containing the extensive contextual note-taking described above along with artist files, correspondence, photographs, ephemera, business papers, and various mock-ups and drafts of publications and art projects, totaling approximately 15.5 linear feet, are newly available to the public for research at the Museum Archives reading room at MoMAQNS in Long Island City, Queens.