Tuesday, August 25, 2009

American Antiquarian Society

From time to time I will be posting blogs about institutions which hold important collections of antique prints. I have already written about the Library of Congress, the Amon Carter Museum, and the Connecticut Historical Society. Today I will write about the American Antiquarian Society (AAS), which has an American print collection second to none. It is a relatively unknown gem of a research institution located in Worcester, Massachusetts and one that is near and dear to my heart.

The AAS was established in 1812, founded by Isaiah Thomas and others in order to "encourage the collection and preservation of the Antiquities of our country, and of curious and valuable productions in Art and Nature [that] have a tendency to enlarge the sphere of human knowledge." They wanted to use these collections in order to "aid the progress of science, to perpetuate the history of moral and political events, and to improve and interest posterity." This intent still forms the basis of the AAS as an independent research institution. As stated on their web site, the AAS’s purpose is to collect, organize and preserve the records of the lives and activities of the American people from the colonial era through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and to make these collections available for research so as to further the study and understanding of our past.

The collections of the AAS include books, pamphlets, newspapers, periodicals, broadsides, manuscripts, music, local histories and graphic arts. Much information on these collections is available on the AAS web site. The collections are intended to be used for study and the collections are available for on-site study by experienced researchers. The collections are also often used by other institutions for exhibitions and the like (for instance a few items were borrowed for Panorama of Pittsburgh which I curated last summer), and the AAS further promotes its goals by offering fellowships, educational programs, producing publications, and exhibitions. The AAS is very active on-line, helping produce Common-place, an “interactive journal of Early American Life” and on-line exhibits such as Beauty, Virtue and Vice (which will be the subject of a future blog).

It is the graphics collection at the AAS which is of most interest to me, and as I said, it is in the first rank of American graphics collections. The Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts is Georgia B. Barnhill, one of the leading print scholars in the country. She has lectured and published widely and is known for her insightful and entertaining talks. From when I first got involved with antique prints, Georgia has always been one of my inspirations and all those who are interested in American prints are blessed both for the AAS and that she is the curator of its amazing graphics collections.

I asked Georgia to answer a few questions, which she graciously agreed to do.

The print collection at the AAS is one of the best in the country. How was this put together?
The collection of prints at the American Antiquarian Society has been in formation since the founding of the institution by Isaiah Thomas in 1812. One of his early acquisitions was a copy of every single sheet ballad available at a printer's shop in Boston in 1814. Many of the ballads are illustrated with relief cuts so the collection is both textual and pictorial. The most significant early collection to come to AAS was the bequest of the Reverend William Bentley of Salem, Massachusetts. At his death in 1819, there was no institution in Salem to absorb his collection and it came to Worcester. He was one of the founding members and his collection that came to AAS was rich in drawings and prints of colonial figures. Foremost among the bequest was the woodcut portrait of Richard Mather. The collection of prints was enriched by Isaiah Thomas's collection as well as those of residents of Worcester in the nineteenth century. Clarence Brigham, librarian for over fifty years from about 1910 to 1965 focused on acquiring prints by Paul Revere and other colonial Boston engravers. One generous member in those years was Charles Henry Taylor who was very interested in the history of American lithography. The collection of books illustrated with lithographs as well as independent prints was due to his generosity. More recently the collection received funds from Jay and Deborah Last that enabled me to add to the collection in significant ways. The collection is particularly strong in political prints, portrait prints, city views, landscapes, depictions of historical events, and architectural subjects.

How did you end up as the graphic arts curator?
I came to AAS in 1968 without an advanced degree, but with a general background in art history that fortuitously included a course on the history of prints. After several years, I was offered an opportunity to compile a descriptive bibliography of books and articles on American prints. That was my formal education, and a good one. Within a two year period, I went from a rank amateur in the field to a curator with a great deal of knowledge at my finger tips. Several years ago, the American Historical Print Collectors Society published a revised version of that original bibliography with the literature current to 2000. At some level, I must have realized in the early 1970s that early American prints was a good field and I have happily been researching American prints and illustrations ever since.

How can people get access to the collection?
They can access this collection by using the Society's online catalogs. Engravings issued before 1821 as book and periodical illustrations or as independent prints are in the Catalogue of American Engravings. This union catalog was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Getty Trust, and several other foundations and generous supporters of AAS. Lithographs can be located through the online catalog. Using the term "Lith?" will limit any search to lithographs. There are not any links to digital images at this point. Beginning in the fall of 2009, engravings published after 1820 will be cataloged together with engravings found in literary annuals and gift books. In due course, scans of these items will be linked to the catalog records.

Scholars access the collection remotely, but most successfully by visiting the Society's library in Worcester, Massachusetts. Most researchers who come to AAS are academic scholars; a few are from museums. Prints serve various functions in research. Often they are the subject of the research project; sometimes, they enhance our understanding of an historical moment. Fashions in academic scholarship change from year to year or decade to decade. Right now we have several scholars interested in political prints. But there is always interest in the works of Paul Revere.

How does the AAS support print research?
There is an active fellowship program for scholars interested in visual culture funded by Jay and Deborah Last, Diana Korzenik, and the American Historical Print Collectors Society. Information on the fellowship program is available on the AAS website. The topics of our current research fellows include slavery and abolitionism, type faces, early political prints, ruins, book illustration, the Mississippi River in the public imagination, ancestry and identity, race and photographic humor, sensationalist images and the theatre, games and toys in public libraries, and French and American artistic exchanges.

The future for the use of prints at the Society is bright. In 2005, we initiated the Center for Historic American Visual Culture (CHAViC). In the spring of 2008, AAS received a two year grant from a foundation that has allowed the Society to undertake ambitious programming to exploit our collections and to provide enhanced access. In October, we will hold our third CHAViC conference--Destined for Men: Visual Materials for Male Audiences, 1750-1880. Access to collections has included the cataloging of individual prints and collections and the creation of inventories of large archives. The collections page of the AAS website provides additional information. Inventories of drawings, cased photographs, work by David Claypoole Johnston, photographs of Native Americans are among the fully illustrated collections. AAS also has an active online exhibition program. The two most recent exhibitions are Big Business: Food Production, Processing & Distribution in the North, 1850-1900 and Beauty, Virtue, and Vice: Images of Women in Nineteenth-Century American Prints.

Our efforts reach museum staff, academic scholars, graduate students and members of the public. We hold an annual five-day summer seminar on Interpreting Prints for Teaching and Research and incorporate pedagogical information on using prints in our programs for middle and high school teachers. AAS also sponsors a website for teachers which is richly illustrated with prints from the collection. In short, prints are at the center of much activity at AAS.

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