Night at the Archives

July 17, 2015
During the archives event, Brooke McManus, archives assistant, and Megan Schwenke, the museums’ archivist and records manager, shared the exhibition history of Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals at the Harvard Art Museums.

Professional archivists, amateur historians, and locals simply interested in museums and historical records were among the individuals who recently experienced special access to the Harvard Art Museums Archives at an after-hours event. The event was part of the Cambridge Historical Commission’s annual Cambridge Open Archives tour (casually referred to as an “archives crawl”) and offered a rare glimpse into the wealth of historical material pertaining to the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Arthur M. Sackler Museums.

This was the first year the Harvard Art Museums participated in the tour, which consisted of seven other “stops” over the course of four days. Other sites included the archives of the Cambridge Public Library, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, and the Harvard Semitic Museum.

“Cambridge is home to more archives than just about any place in the United States,” said Kit Rawlins, assistant director of the Cambridge Historical Commission. The crawl gives participants a chance “to go behind the curtain to see things rarely seen and to have a chance to speak directly with the archivists. We’ve discovered that the archivists love the event as much as the visitors do because they love talking about their collections.”

The Harvard Art Museums’ event was held in the Materials Lab (though the Archives itself is permanently housed in the museums’ Somerville facility). Two groups of ten visited over the course of one evening.

Megan Schwenke, the museums’ archivist and records manager, and Brooke McManus, archives assistant, greeted guests and gave short presentations about the museums’ history, in line with this year’s theme, “New Acquisitions and Old Treasures.” They told stories about the early establishment of the Fogg Museum’s teaching and learning philosophy, the development of exhibitions over time, and notable activities and events (including the recent renovation and expansion of the 32 Quincy Street building). More than 100 objects, records, photographs, and other ephemera were on display, and visitors were encouraged to look closely and ask questions about specific items.

Among the objects were a 1926 bottle with a message from the construction workers at the historic Fogg Museum building at 32 Quincy Street; a (surprisingly unassuming) key to the Fogg Museum, given to then-director Edward Forbes during the museum’s dedication in 1927; a scrapbook about Rex, a beloved museum guard dog who “worked” during the late 1930s and early 1940s; and photos of masquerade balls from the 1950s. Recent and upcoming acquisitions received attention as well; photographs and souvenir paper bowties from the museums’ November 2014 student opening event were on view, as was a replica of a panel from Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals, created by students and used in the Spring 2015 production of Red.

“We were thrilled to give attendees a behind-the-scenes look at our archives’ remarkable holdings,” said Schwenke, who noted that many attendees were eager to share their own memories of the pre-renovation museums. “We hope that when they return to the museums, they will do so with an even greater appreciation of our rich history.”

For Rawlins, who made it to every stop on the crawl, that will definitely be the case. “My new understanding of the history of the Harvard Art Museums as a teaching institution will make me view the artworks in a different way,” she said. “I’ll also think about Mr. Forbes opening the front door with an ordinary house key and the handsome German shepherd patrolling the halls.”

  • Images of the museums’ security dogs were shown alongside a “message in a bottle” found during the Harvard Art Museums renovation and expansion project in 2008.
    of Images of the museums’ security dogs were shown alongside a “message in a bottle” found during the Harvard Art Museums renovation and expansion project in 2008.
  • Participants of the archives program viewed materials illustrating the museums’ esteemed teaching legacy.
    of Participants of the archives program viewed materials illustrating the museums’ esteemed teaching legacy.