Tuesday, February 2, 2010

New curator of graphic arts at the American Antiquarian Society

In a number of previous blogs, I have written about the American Antiquarian Society and its graphics collection, interviewed curator Georgia Barnhill, and posted my experience at the CHAVIC conference held there last autumn. I know that it may seem like I am biased towards the AAS, but today’s blog is an interview with Lauren B. Hewes, the institution’s new Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts. At last year’s conference it was announced that Georgia would be taking on a new position as head of CHAVIC and that Lauren, previously Georgia’s assistant, would be taking over as curator of the graphics collection. The AAS is very lucky to have had such an able person right in house to take over and so I thought the good news warranted an interview with Lauren….

1. How did you end up getting involved with prints?

My first experience with prints was actually in high school where I took a print-making class for an art requirement and just loved it. We had a great big etching press, acid baths, fume hoods, etc -- it was a very complete shop, so I got to try pretty much every technique except lithography. I first set type in the historic print shop of Shelburne Museum in Vermont where I worked as a curator for several years and learned all about letterpress and the book arts from the craftspeople who worked there as interpreters and printers. In graduate school I was hunting around for a work study position and Rafael Fernandez, the Print curator at the Clark Art Institute had posted a job in his print room. I worked with him for two years and learned a lot about the connoisseurship of fine prints and how a print study room operates.

2. What is your favorite subject / type of print in the AAS collection?

This is a fairly impossible question – it is a bit like asking someone to pick their favorite child! One area of focus during my student years was nineteenth-century American history, so prints that were produced in that period hold a special interest for me, but I really do not have a favorite. I should admit that lately, due to our various re-housing and inventory projects, I find that I am especially drawn to the rich ephemera collections at the Society – those small, carefully printed tickets for medical lectures, calling cards for Boston ladies, and valentines to Civil War soldiers etc. etc. – these are not really considered prints, but the printing and design are often exquisitely done.

2b. What is your favorite print in the collection?

Whichever print I am working with at the time you ask me! I tend to be very enthusiastic about each object in the collection and the scholars and researchers who work in the library often bring interesting perspectives to the prints and drawings under my care.

3. What do you see as the greatest strength of the AAS graphics collection?

Access! Our cataloguing records are just outstanding and I credit this to the staff over the years who carefully recorded the lithograph collection and the engravings before 1820. We are currently about a quarter of the way through an NEH grant called “Prints in the Parlor” to item-level catalogue a good portion of our 19th-century engravings, as well. Additionally, we have wonderful finding aides for many sub-collections that are not included in our larger catalogue, including collections of the works of David Claypool Johnston or our European Political Print collection. You can see many of these finding aides on our Library Collections page.

4. What part of the graphics collection would you most like to strengthen?

The Society’s graphic arts holdings are very strong and broad. A description of the collection can be found on our website and reveals the real pillars of the print collection – the 18th century engravings and the 19th century lithographs and engravings. Since the collection is already so exceptional, I try to add strength by providing better access to collections that we already hold. Over the past few years we have really been trying to increase the availability of the Society’s photography holdings, for example.

5. Is there any one print or type of print not in the collection that you would like to add?

I always try first to fill in gaps of any pre-1820 separately published engravings that we may lack or any that are unrecorded in CAEP. This is an area identified as a priority in our collection policy. Also, I am always interested in anything related to the history of the book or American history – portraits of authors or specific events.

6. Now that you have become the curator, following Georgia Barnhill, what is the biggest task facing you?

Working with Gigi Barnhill is one of the best parts of my job! I was fortunate to be her assistant for several years and she has been a very gracious, kind, knowledgeable mentor. There are several large cataloguing projects ahead that Gigi and I have discussed over the years, one of which is the fantastic map collection that we hold. Currently this collection is available only via a card file. I am hoping to prepare a grant for the coming years that will permit us to catalogue the maps and make them accessible to readers.

7. Will you and Georgia Barnhill be working together?

Oh yes! Gigi is currently the Director for the Society’s Center for Historic American Visual Culture and the programs that she organizes in that capacity usually draw on the graphic arts collection.

8. What projects do you have underway or planned for the AAS for the future?

I have already mentioned two of these – the NEH-funded project that involves the separately published 19th-century engravings (which also has a component involving gift book illustrations) and the map project, which will organize and item-level catalogue our collection of maps. We are also processing our large holdings of ephemera and I will be rehousing and inventorying the Society’s collection of 19th-century valentines over the next year or so. We will continue to work to provide increased access to all aspects of the collection. There are plans underway to digitize our Paul Revere engravings in order to create a web-based inventory of these for teachers and scholars.

9. What long-term goals do you have for the graphic collection at the AAS?

To continue to provide high-quality access and control of the collection. One of the collections that I have under my care is the collection of sheet music – all 60,000 songs! Currently these are indexed in a card file available only in our reading room. Wouldn’t it be great to have a digital resource like the Lester Levy Collection at John Hopkins where you can search by composer or lithographer or key word? It will take a very long time to complete, but that is one of my goals for the collection!

10. What is your favorite print repository / institution besides AAS and why?

I spent time in a lot of print rooms during my work as a bibliographer for the Print Council of America, so I have several answers for this. One of my favorite places to look at prints is the New York Public Library – the staff is great and the collections are outstanding – plus they have a lot of material on New York that we lack. The Boston Public Library and the Library Company in Philadelphia are rich resources for print research, as well. The print room of the British Museum would be up near the top, too, just to include a non-American venue in the mix!


  1. Welcome to Lauren, you are so lucky to have her there!

  2. Excellent interview--I am *so* interested in interview formats on blogs. Keep up the great and informative work on this extremely interesting and highly useful blog. Cheers!