Things I never knew

Yesterday morning I spent time with the ‘Paintings’ drawers – these are colour coded red, there are 281 drawers in this section. They form a large part of the collection. I was rather overwhelmed by them to begin with, but they are an exciting and rather tantalizing collection – every (known) painter is possibly included here, somewhere. The drawers are first ordered by chronological geographical location, then within the drawer by chronological surname.

I started with the first drawer: African: Congo-Uganda/ Algerian// American: Abb-Dav. Just this drawer alone has led me to discover artists and works I never knew of – alongside some of the more well known works. There is an interesting democracy at work in a drawer such as this; artworks which would never be exhibited together here sit side by side; artists who would never come together geographically nor periodically, are divided by letter alone. The collection of slides dismantles art historical categories of style and canonisation, purely through their placement in a drawer space. I like to think it of it as a rather radical challenging of traditional art historical methods. In this drawer African artists meet American artists, each with their own typed or hand-written slide card of title, date and artist’s name, but nothing to suggest value or worth, or an imposed interpretation.

I’ve picked out a few works which caught my eye:

Chéri Samba, The Draughtsman, Chéri Samba (1981)

Chike C. Aniakor, The Allegory of Power (1996)


 

Thomas Hart Benton, Deep South [one of three murals] (1930-31)

 

Paul Cadmus, YMCA Locker Room (1931)

 

Stuart Davis, The Paris Bit (1959)

 

George Brecht, Silence (1966)

One of the conceptual artist-musician’s “word gestures”: rather appropriately, I can’t find this image online.

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A spanner in the works …..

To give you some starting stats: the Art History & Visual Studies slide collection consists of approximately 55 slide cabinets containing approximately 160, 000 slides.

Currently underused and (very nearly) obsolete due to ‘technology updates’, the department has been wrangling over what to do with the slide collection for some years – coming to a head in the past 6 months or so. Of course we are all lining ourselves up on one side or another of the debate. The AHVS & Archaeology library, the current location for the collection, requires urgent refurbishment, and there is a desperate lack of study space. In our former building the slide collection was housed in its own room, but now the slide cabinets are taking up vital study areas. Given the slides are, for the large part, not used within teaching perhaps it is time we dispose of such a large and cumbersome – and some would argue, unnecessary – object. After all, we have ‘Google’ and various online portals which offer digitised imagery. This is one side of the argument.

However, the opposing argument is one which applies to all gallery, museum, library, and university collections: the majority of the content contained within any collection generally lays unused until some form of intervention – an exhibition, an education project, a lone and wandering researcher, an artist or writer. 99% of the Manchester Museum’s collection remains in storage – this is the nature of the ‘collection’ and ‘archive’ beast. There is simply never enough space nor methods by which to exhibit all items and ephemera.  There are various circling debates surrounding ‘access’ to such hidden materials.

To argue, then, that an archive is obsolete or unnecessary simply because it is not in permanent use seems rather short sighted. What, exactly, is a collection or archive for? How best can they be put into use?

The AHVS slide collection has been built up over a 15-20 year period by existing and emeritus staff. Many of the slides archive objects, artworks, spaces, architecture and exhibitions which cannot be found through a general online ‘Google’ search, nor are they likely to be found in easy-to-hand publications. Granted, other slides are simply reproductions of images taken from books prior to the availability of digitised imagery.

To my mind the slide collection presents a new learning opportunity. Google and other such portals are only as helpful as the prior knowledge typed into the search engine box; an archive or collection offers new topics, themes, images which students and researchers may never have considered. Plus, the very nature of image capturing does have its own history – the slide collection is part of the history of AHVS methods and research, something which students may never be made aware of if we choose to substitute all ‘old’ technologies with ‘new’ technologies simply because it saves a few square foot of space.

So, I’ve thrown a spanner into the works – as a researcher and writer I’ve argued I don’t want to see the slide collection dismantled and thrown into the skip. But don’t get me wrong, this isn’t sentimental materiality. I will have to identify those slides which may no longer be of use (whatever that term comes to mean).