Then and Now

As WAM staff prepare to re-open next month following a year-long closure in which the existing museum facility received a face-lift and addition, it is an interesting occasion that we at the Archives are processing the very boxes that document the initial planning and physical build of the Frank Gehry designed museum which resides on the East Bank of the U of M-Twin Cities campus.

The following photos were found amongst the folders and contents that later filled BOX 174. A folder titled, “New Building: Site planning” was paper-clipped to the photographs. The date stamp on the photos give a clue to the year they were taken…

Can you identify what is missing from the following photos?


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The Little Staple Remover That Could

Clip. Snap. Pull. Snip.

The little staple remover separated papers that contained private or confidential information. The WAM Files project staple remover was a happy little staple remover for she had such a “jolly load” of confidential materials to separate!

There were University invoices with social security numbers, personnel files with social security numbers, and even reports of grades earned in courses taken… with social security numbers! Then there were photocopies of personal checks – checks for donations, checks for reservations, and checks for libations!


The little staple remover aids the processor in separating the items containing confidential information, which are then set aside for confidential recycling.

As they have often encountered folders containing papers which are stacked 2 or more inches thick, the processors and the little staple remover are often left thinking…

I think I can… I think I can… I think I can… I think I can…

(Blog post written in the spirit of The Little Engine that Could, by Watty Piper)

Bicentennial Bevy

I have previously featured several items that are present within the WAM collection concerning the Bicentennial Exhibition of Minnesota Art and Architecture. Just when I thought I had seen the last trace of any Bicentennial exhibit record – I came across a bevy of related materials that once again increased my intrigue in this exhibition.

Several photographs and negatives (loose or in envelopes) that capture the various stops along the statewide exhibition tour, were found bulging from a folder in Box 100. Upon the sage advice of the Archives staff, negatives were placed in envelopes and photographs were enclosed in protective sheets.

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The photographs document the installation of the traveling exhibit at host sites, capture visitors from local communities enjoying the works on display, and also feature a few choice shots of the “big rig” used to haul the exhibition across the state.

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Typical Tuesday

On a typical shift in the archives processing room, I often sit across the room from another intern who is working on a different project sorting through handwritten letters – one type of archival material.

Web_WAM_115_MimbresBox_01.jpgWhat is interesting to me about the WAM collection is that I often don’t know what to expect – what type of material to expect – when removing the lid of the next box.

For instance, take a Tuesday afternoon from two weeks ago. I removed the lid of soon-to-be box 116 to find the draft of a catalogue for a Mimbres pottery exhibition right on top of the folders. The draft, too large to fit upright in the standard archival box, had been casually placed on top. I made note of the oversized material and set it aside along with other items we’ve encountered that didn’t quite “fit.”

After getting through a few folders, I was taken aback upon opening the front fold of a folder containing planning correspondence for the Mimbres pottery exhibit, as a mysterious foreign object flew up and landed back down on the folder. Not really sure what it was – I convinced myself it was a old dried up piece of granola or a stray piece of corkboard – and logically determined it should not be kept in the folder, but rather discarded.

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That was soon followed by a dry and crumbly rubber band that had partially attached itself like a parasite – through some scientific process – to correspondence from The Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite. Another rubber band contained within the folder shattered like glass upon touch…


And then there was a cut-out of an ear of corn…

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Upon further examination, it was revealed to be part of the design of a brochure for a public work of art by artist Harriet Bart titled, “Harvest” that was installed/planted outside the Weisman in 1996.

Because the WAM collection contains the former working files of museum employees, processing the material gives us great insight into the personal organizational habits of certain individuals. For example, who ever was proofreading a draft of the label text to be used for the Mimbres pottery exhibit, cared to mark a passage with a sticky “Memo from Hell.”


Is this “memo” literal, or whimsical?

From my perspective, the presence of it in the WAM collection… is pretty typical.

Gaps in History

Remember those oversized floppy disks from the 1970s and 1980s? I do (barely), but they still looked strange and almost comical when I came upon a trove of them in the WAM files. It’s been decades since I’ve seen one, or a machine that could read one, so I wondered if there is a way to retrieve the information they hold.

I asked Erik Moore, Assistant University Archivist, about this issue, He says, “Simply put, the 8 inch floppy is lost… They were not easily played back on other 8 inch floppy machines because the drives that created them were so unique.” It turns out Erik has come upon this problem before, and has written a blog post for the Academic Health Center History Project on this very topic. On the problem of obsolete media and archiving, he says, “Changes in storage media will always challenge our preservation techniques and cause a few gaps in recorded history. This is to be expected and for the most part accepted as progress to better record keeping.”

I’m sure we can come up with another use for these floppies. As a frisbee, perhaps?

Ruth’s Reflections, Research…

Web_WAM_003_StaffPhotographs_4.jpg Several boxes already processed contain “Museum History” folders and others similarly titled. However as we near the end of processing the first set of 116 boxes, which document 77 years of institutional history, the “Museum History” folder in Box 100 might be the most intriguing yet. The contents of this particular folder include a 24 page report, each word typed on delicate light-weight paper. A hand-written notation on the first page indicates, “Mrs. Lawrence’s 25 yr. report.”

In the section titled, “Objectives Outlined,” a reflective description of the curator’s (Lawrence’s) initial responsibilities in the Gallery was found:

“The other duties of the new curator included holding round-table discussions with students; organizing a student art society, which would bring together artists and students and expose students to cultural matters; seek out lecturers and provide demonstrations on art subjects; and in general “advertizing and selling” art to the student body and faculty, in ways proper to the dignity of the institution. Other suggestions followed; by this time the task seemed overwhelming. Mrs. Lawrence explained that she was amazed and somewhat confounded, although also flattered, that they would think that she could handle such an assignment. The job called for diplomacy and great understanding on a full time, not a half-time basis. As for the Gallery itself, she felt she was not qualified, had had no training, and would not know where to begin. She was sorry, but with her other assignments of teaching and counseling, she believed that they had mistaken her capabilities. But when one comes into one’s first job with the University, one does not usually refuse to cooperate when given an assignment.”

Despite her initial question of confidence, Lawrence embraced her first University assignment in 1934 and continued to guide the University Gallery until her retirement in 1957.

WAM_089_MuseumStudy.jpg In Box 89, a folder titled, “Museum Study, Procedure, Management Etc., ” dated 1934, contains reference materials that Lawrence kept on gallery practices. In addition to a pamphlet from the Toledo Museum, titled, “The Museum Educates,” and clippings from “The Art Digest,” fliers produced by the Newark Museum titled, “The Museum,” were found that outlined recommendations for running a museum or gallery. The article, “Case Movers” addresses, “Mr. Dana’s Original Solution of a Difficult Museum Problem.” “A Convenient Gallery Stool” suggests that a bench or stool placed within a gallery addresses the ‘museum fatigue’ experienced by most visitors.

WAM_089_MuseumStudy_Enjoy.jpg A small book titled, “Enjoy Your Museum,” by Carl Thurston offers simple lessons in carrying out the work in a museum. Perhaps such lessons inspired Lawrence’s work. From “Chapter II: What to Expect From a Picture:”

“Don’t expect too much.

Don’t expect it to pour out entertainment like a radio while you sit passively in front of it. It corresponds to a sheet of music rather than to any musical machine: it has to be played, and no one can play it for you but yourself. Some paintings can be played at sight, others need long study and practice; with each one you ultimately reach a stage at which it at least seems to play itself…

Don’t expect too little from a picture.

It is something more than a careful copy of nature. It is something more than a pretty story told in paint. It is more than a pattern of colors or a decorative arrangement of shapes. It is all of these things at once and many more. It is a sort of crossword puzzle which can be read up and down, diagonally and across, backward and forward, and whose separate words, taken consecutively in any order, form a poem.”


Most of the material contained within the folders of the WAM archives consists of standard 8.5×11 papers documenting correspondence, notes, plans, etc. However, many of the exhibition planning files also contain a wide assortment of intriguing miscellany – photos, slides, negatives, cardboard-mounted wall labels, fabric swatches, catalogue drafts, newspaper clippings, books, etc. Here are a few of the curious items recently discovered while processing:

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A red pen, possibly left in the folder for decades; A paper bag with hand-drawn design/plan…

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Letters taped to a design of an exhibit structure; Tile sample? Bolt?

Series… spill…

NEW_CoffeeStain.jpgThe contents of the folders contained within the WAM files not only document the specific activities of the Weisman (and the titles that proceed it) but also of associations the museum was and continues to be involved with. There are many records that document participation in regional, state, and national “Associations,” which this archive project has designated as a series title for classification.

This is just a guess – but judging by the appearance of this memorandum, I am assuming that at some point before, during, or shortly thereafter the March 20, 1987 Minnesota Association of Museums Steering Committee meeting, a spill of some sort occurred…

Materials and Tools of Archives

Inspired by the photographs found of the 1947 exhibit, “Materials and Tools of Art” I thought it would be of interest to share the Materials and Tools of Archives – as related to the WAM Files project.

First, the location. Processing occurs in a secure subbasement workroom of Elmer L. Andersen Library on the West Bank campus at the University. The workroom is shared by the many archives and special collections units that comprise the library. In a front corner of the room, the “materials and tools” are kept amongst three large tables which combine to form a U-shaped work station.

Let’s start with a few vocabulary words.

Thumbnail image for FolderBox4.JPGBox – Container for folders.
Folder – container for materials (correspondence, exhibit catalogues, exhibition checklists, photos, slides, etc.)

Processing began with replacing several of the first set of boxes that had ripped tops or torn corners/edges. Simply put, contents from old boxes are moved to new boxes. Propping the box allows for folders to be neatly and orderly stacked on top of each other while transferring contents from one box to another. Another tool, a sponge, acts as a placeholder, keeping folders upright and ensuring they don’t collapse or fold over as other folders are removed. Folders that are ripped, weak, or colored are replaced so that the folder will reinforce or adequately hold the contents within.

Pencil – Each folder is labeled with the collection number, folder title, and the date. Whether you like an old school #2 or a high-tech mechanical, it’s the processors choice – just never use a pen.

Eraser – We’re not perfect!

Stapler, staples – Labeled folders that do not need replacing are stapled on the label. Due to the humidity levels of the environment in which the collection is stored, the adhesive on the labels will give way over time resulting in a label free fall.

Staple remover – During the creation of the record (based on the administrative flair of the creator) notes, business cards, and other miscellaneous items were often stapled to the inside of folders. The staples are removed and the newly-free, formerly-attached items join the remaining folder contents.

Post-It Notes – To make notes!

Reference.JPGReference materials – In addition to the University Archives processing guidelines document, our project adviser has shared with us several standard references for archival processing.

Computer – The collection series, folder title, and date is recorded on a spreadsheet to make a record of the contents of the collection, which will later be converted to encoded archival description (EAD) which will be used to create a finding aid.

But before we get ahead of ourselves with talk of finding aids (we have completed processing just short of 30 boxes thus far), there is one final and and important material that is of paramount use in the archives – cotton, wool, polyester, whatever variety of fabric blend preferred by the processor that will provide an extra layer of warmth in the cool, cavernous, temperature controlled environment.