Written by Dylan Clark, Former Dumbarton Oaks William R. Tyler Fellow
The first phase of the Justin and Barbara Kerr Photographic Archive appraisal took place in mid-November 2012 when Rona Razon (ICFA Archivist) and I traveled to New York City to visit the Kerrs in their studio and begin the inventory of their pre-Columbian photographic and documentary collection. As discussed in my previous blog post, this archive contains an important collection of rollout photographs of carved and painted Maya vases, along with still photographs of archaeological artifacts, monuments, and sites. The Kerr collection is now over 60 years in the making, and most of the objects photographed are pre-Columbian art from Mesoamerica, although a small portion includes photographs of objects from ancient North America, the Caribbean, and numerous cultures of the Old World. Many of the objects documented by the Kerrs are currently in private collections and museums all over the world.
Below are examples of still photographs from the Kerr archive: the Maya archaeological site of Ek Balam in Yucatán, Mexico and four clay roller seals of the Olmec culture.
In November 2012, we collected extensive background information on the history of the collection, documented the location and extent of the materials in the studio, and determined the variety of formats present in the collection that would need to be curated in the future at ICFA. We also began the general inventory of the materials, creating a template for the finding aid that will be created to help guide future researchers using the collection. It quickly became obvious during our first visit that we would not have enough time to complete the appraisal in one week and would need to return to continue the inventory, focusing on the quantity of individual items and extent of the physical and digital archival material, along with clarifying any remaining questions with our donors. In late March 2013, Justin and Barbara Kerr generously opened their studio and home to us again so that we could continue this process.
One of the great advantages we had, thanks to the Kerrs’ careful organization of the collection over the years for researcher use and access, was an overarching framework for the archive in the form of the Kerr numbers assigned to each object photographed. We already knew that there were well over 9,000 Kerr numbers, and that this number continues to grow as the Kerrs press on with their photographic documentation. We also knew that with the exception of formats such as small 35mm slides or large oversize prints, which necessitated separate storage, the majority of the materials were currently stored together by Kerr number, including rollout transparencies, still negatives, and contact sheets. By the end of our second visit, we had identified over 20 different formats within the archive. Fortunately, Rona’s practical experience from working with archival material counter-balanced in my own unrealistic determination to count and register every single item in the Kerrs’ extensive collection. An exact item-level count is something that can be conducted once the archive is physically transported to its new home at Dumbarton Oaks. Therefore, in New York, we made careful quantitative estimates of the total number of each format by opening every storage container, whether envelopes and folders in file drawers or folders of digital files on the Kerrs’ computers and hard drives. From there, we chose the most representative of each kind of drawer and folder for more exact counts, from which we then derived maximum estimates for the remaining collection.
Below are examples of the contents in the Kerr Photographic Archive. Each Kerr number envelope may have multiple formats included together. As noted above, smaller items such as 35mm slides are stored separately. We examined every drawer to make accurate quantitative estimates.
Based on this approach, we estimate the total number of individual items in the Kerr Photographic Archive to be over 250,000. Within this large collection, however, there are many duplicate slides and reprints of photographs, so it is possible to identify what we call the “core research collection” within the archive—i.e. the items of most interest to researchers interested in Mesoamerican and, specifically, Maya archaeology. These include the transparencies and negatives of the Maya vase rollout photographs, which number less than 10,000 and the restoration photographs that number approximately 3,000. The extremely valuable still photographic transparencies – which include pre-Columbian and non-pre-Columbian objects, as well as archaeological site photographs that document how the sites’ architecture looked at the time they were shot (during the second half of the 20th century) – number around 16,000.
Estimating the quantity of each format within the archive is extremely important for ICFA because the priority, of course, is to ensure the best conservation of the archival materials once they arrive at Dumbarton Oaks. Knowing the space requirements, as well as any special storage issues such as cold storage for negatives and transparencies, which will be necessary to ensure the preservation of all media formats within the photographic archive is essential to this effort.
In the first two phases of the ICFA appraisal of the Justin and Barbara Kerr Photographic Archive, we have been able to accomplish a number of our primary goals. First and foremost, we determined exactly what kinds of items make up the archive, their condition, and how these are currently organized and stored. In the process, Justin and Barbara introduced us to additional restoration photographs and documents that will be of significant interest to researchers who visit Dumbarton Oaks in the future. Second, we obtained sound estimates for the quantity of each format represented in the photographic collection, identified priorities for conservation and research, and evaluated the material based on ICFA’s collection criteria. Through extensive interviews with the Kerrs, we learned how the archive developed over time, how it has been used by researchers in the past, and the donors’ vision for its future life as a part of ICFA. Finally, building from Justin and Barbara’s existing Microsoft Access database, we began a new detailed inventory of the collection, putting the framework in place for the eventual process of collating the different media associated with each Kerr number. All of this ultimately contributes to building the right kind of home for the collection at Dumbarton Oaks by determining the space requirements and appropriate storage facilities, creating a finding aid to facilitate researcher access to items in the archive, and generating a conservation plan for the present and future.
As a Tyler Fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies and a graduate student in Maya archaeology, the experience of assisting with the Kerr Photographic Archive has been invaluable to me. Through this process, I had the opportunity to get to know this archive in detail, work closely with the rollout photographs, and engage with Justin and Barbara Kerr in person. From the Kerrs, I learned so much about the iconography of Maya polychrome ceramics, their experiences working with these kinds of artifacts, and the quirky and charismatic scholars in our field. What’s more, the Kerrs shared so much about the history of Maya archaeology, as their life’s work has straddled an extremely pivotal time in the history of pre-Columbian studies, when the field coalesced and experienced significant breakthroughs in both epigraphy and archaeology since the 1960s. As a field archaeologist, prior to this academic year at Dumbarton Oaks, I did not have the opportunity to really “dive in” and swim around in the world of either archives or museums. Over the past year, I’ve gained new and valuable insights into how significant collections, whether they consist of art objects, historical documents, or photographs, are conserved for future generations.