As an intern in the MoMA Archives, my favorite part of the day is paging through the material that our researchers have requested. Though pulling document files doesn’t seem like the most exciting task in the world, it is for me, because it’s the exact moment when archives come alive. Sitting in the stacks in hundreds of archival boxes, these documents are inactive forces of potential energy waiting to be picked up. And when I pull out unique items like original letters written by Alfred Barr and notebooks by Vito Acconci, I feel as though I am giving these priceless documents a chance to live. For a single moment—and a single researcher—these items escape their boxes to be seen, studied, appreciated, and revered. But at the end of the day, they must go back to their boxes, concealed from the world, waiting to be seen at the request of yet another researcher.
Archives tend to live on the periphery in the art world. Placed within a museum’s most dark and isolated areas, their hidden physical life matches the way they are used and presented within exhibitions. Though crucial to a curator’s scholarship and (re)interpretation of an artwork, they are rarely exhibited and exist only as a footnote in the back of a catalogue, tucked away from the eyes of many.
But in Europe curators are shifting archives from the margins of the texts that they write to the very subjects of the shows they create. You can imagine my excitement when I discovered that these materials escaped their typical fate to instead be placed in a display case for millions to see, for days on end. MoMA’s 12-Month Internship Program enabled me to investigate this phenomenon in England, a place where archives are not only exhibited, but art museums and institutions have created permanent gallery spaces devoted solely to their display.One such place is the Henry Moore Institute‘s Upper Sculpture Study Gallery. Frequently featuring material from its Research Library and Archive, the gallery materializes the institute’s dedication as a center for the study of sculpture and places archives at the forefront of this dialogue. As the Henry Moore Institute curator Pavel Pyś claims, “Our Archives and Research Library are the heart of the Institute, where new thought and new research stems from.”
Meeting with Pyś, curator of the institute’s previous archive show Dorothy Annan and Trevor Tennant, I was really intrigued by a “non-archivist’s” perspective about the trend in exhibiting archive material. Pyś believes that this popularity stems from a shift in art historical scholarship. He claims that, “In the 20th century, a big of way of focusing on art was to think about individual artworks and to write narratives about those works and fitting them into a certain chronology with other works. But I think what’s happening now is more the history of art being written through its context and exhibitions…. That shift to context is key on focusing on archival material.”
The Whitechapel Gallery is another institute that recognizes the importance of archives within the dialogue of art history. Presented in the Archive Gallery, the exhibition Sculptors’ Papers from the Henry Moore Institute Archive was part of Whitechapel’s ongoing program of archive exhibitions in which they display guest archives and items from the gallery’s own history. Meeting with the curator of the Archive Gallery, Nayia Yiakoumaki, I learned that one of the biggest luxuries archives have to offer is their ability to allow us to move through time.
Symbolic of this unique capability is a work by photographer Hrair Sarkissian, in Tate Modern’s exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography, where I discovered that the use of archives is popular not only among curators, but among artists. In his work istory, Hrair presents images taken from historical archives in Turkey relating to the history of his ancestors and the 1915 Armenian genocide. With the specific contents of the archives hidden from the viewer, these photos show rows of information that appear caught in time yet represent the very documents that either confirm or deny the history of his people, questioning his own existence in the present.
A successful archive exhibition doesn’t simply retell a static, linear history. Like Hrair’s work, its importance lies in uncovering multiple perspectives that challenge our current notions, telling a diverse, ever-changing story of the past within our present.