One of the most fascinating books I read while working on my dissertation had nothing to do with the topic as such:
It’s the 189-page “user’s guide” to the British Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings, published in 1987. In it, Antony Griffiths and Reginald Williams matter-of-factly explain the dozens of schemes their department had used over the years in attempts to store, organize, and index prints and drawings. Phrases like “unfortunately, there is no way of telling [obvious thing one would want to know]” and “Thus, despite its name [a given index doesn’t do what it claims]” regularly punctuate the text. Besides being essential for conducting research in those pre-online-catalog days, the book recorded changing ideas about the most important aspect of a given piece. Today, we can easily search the British Museum’s collection database to skim through (for instance) digitized examples of prints by a particular artist, by a particular engraver, or of a particular topic. The BM has boxes for each of those series, but any given print can only go in one box. 1
The organization of the Folger’s prints and drawings collection likewise provides a tangible history of changing research interests and institutional practice. For the first few decades after the Folger opened in 1932, the scholarly value of most prints and drawings was largely ignored in favor of books and manuscripts. Accordingly, noteworthy visual material received “book” or “manuscript” classification in order to rise to the top. For example, the Folger has the only known copy of this engraving of London: 2
But the work does not have the “ART Box” call number that pre-1700 prints eventually received. 3 Rather, it has a Library of Congress call number that would put it on a shelf with geography books, if it happened to fit there. 4
The Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608, recently discussed here by Heather Wolfe, is another example. Often referred to in-house as “the Treveylon manuscript”, it is shelved in the manuscript section of the vault. True, it does have plenty of transcribed texts, but it is dominated by colorful images, and the only significant original compositions are the pattern pages, some of which are shown below.
If the Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608 had come into the collection six years ago instead of sixty-seven, it would now be in the art collection, with an “ART Vol. d” call number.
When it finally came time to assign call numbers to prints and drawings (in the 1960s?), Folger staff created a call number system designed for easy retrieval. Want to see how Macbeth has been represented over the years? Call up everything that starts with “ART File S528m1” 5 and you’ll get dozens of examples like this:
Want to see how David Garrick (1717-1779) has been represented over the years, both on stage and off? Call up everything that starts with “ART File G241.” 6
Want to see all the original drawings by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) at the Folger? Call up everything that starts with “ART Box F993.” 7
You see the problem. “Macbeth” images are filed together except when they depict a specific actor (in which case they’re filed by actor) and except when they’re drawn by a known artist (in which case they’re filed by artist). The same holds true for any Shakespeare play.
The “ART Box” and “ART File” system was abandoned in the 1980s in favor of shelving prints and drawings by accession number, i.e. a six-digit number representing the order that they’re added to the collection (the six-digit system of accession numbers began here in late 1948). Instead of having to pick one aspect as “the most important” for shelving purposes (and having to shift things when a large group needs to go into the middle) new items can just go at the end, and users can search for similar things by clicking any number of different headings in the Hamnet record (artist, printmaker, subject, medium, place of creation, etc.). There’s a problem, though: what about un-cataloged prints acquired before accession numbers were introduced in 1948? Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed the odd call number associated with the mezzotint of David Garrick as King Lear that appeared in the Collation post “Return of the Prodigal Painting(s)” in October:
“UCG-18”? Why not something starting “ART File G241” for Garrick, or “ART File S528k6” for Shakespeare’s King Lear? Simple. The mezzotint comes from a large stash of Garrick-related prints that Mr. and Mrs. Folger had purchased in the 1920s, but which remain un-cataloged. 8 Staff have always known about this stash of prints, referred to as the “Un-cataloged Garrickiana” collection. “UCG-18” happens to be the 18th print in the stack of Un-cataloged Garrickiana. The Folger might not have a book like the British Museum Prints & Drawings department’s “User’s Guide,” but there’s more than enough institutional memory to fill one.
- At first, the British Museum tried collecting three copies of every print, one to file under the artist’s name, one to file under the engraver’s name, one to file under the subject depicted, but that was soon abandoned as impractical.
- Similar views are found elsewhere, though, with different lettering and design.
- Pre-1700 prints and all drawings were deemed special enough to get “ART Box” classifications instead of “ART File,” which meant they were stored in boxes, safer housing than the file drawers that held post-1700 prints and photographs. Most “ART File” material has since been re-housed in individual folders, leap-frogging over “ART Box” in terms of storage quality.
- It doesn’t. Instead, there’s a dummy on the shelf explaining that it’s framed and hung elsewhere in the vault.
- Where “S528” represents “Shak” (for Shakespeare) in the “Cutter” system, and “m1” represents “first Shakespeare play, alphabetically, that starts with an “m”.
- Where “G241” represents “Garr” (for Garrick) in the “Cutter” system.
- Where “F993” represents “FUSE” (for Fuseli) in the Cutter system.
- But not for much longer: the Folger has added an art and manuscript cataloger to the staff.