Archives Are a Communal Attic, Unglamorous But Vital

By Michael Feldberg

Published January 20, 2006, issue of January 20, 2006.
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On this page last week, opinion writer Tom Freudenheim expressed dismay that the American Jewish Historical Society agreed to sell its six colonial-era Levy-Franks family portraits to a national, non-Jewish museum and blamed the society’s trustees for callously selling off the American Jewish people’s “patrimony” (“Stop Communal Institutions From Selling Off Our Heritage,” January 13).

His eloquence was misguided. If indeed the society’s holdings are a communal treasure, then surely they are also a matter of communal responsibility. And if the community consistently fails to provide those who hold that trust with the means to carry it out, then the beleaguered trustees must find other appropriate ways to fulfill their responsibilities.

No one preferred to sell the portraits, but it was a wise step for the trustees to take. The sale of the Levy-Franks portraits and, potentially, the society’s entire portrait collection, will allow the society to focus its efforts on its critical, core mission of preserving documents, photographs and rare books.

The American Jewish Historical Society, which was founded in 1892, is typical of the first generation of historical societies in the United States. Before most American cities had museums or public libraries, much less university libraries and specialized commercial archives, multifunctional historical societies were the institutions communities created to preserve the record of their past.

Historical societies collected in every medium: archival documents, books, portraits, paintings, journals, periodicals and, in later years, photographs, photocopies, video and audio tapes. They became a community’s “attic” for historic research materials that are occasionally pulled out for an author or genealogist and occasionally for lending to a museum for an exhibition. For the most part, significant portions of any historical society’s holdings lie unviewed for years at a time, held against that moment in which they might be wanted or needed.

Today, we live in an age of easy access to historical information. Very few Americans frequent their local historical society to view original documents, photos or portraits; they get their history from Web sites, from best sellers delivered to their mailboxes by Amazon, or from documentaries viewed on the History Channel — which, by the way, filmmakers could not produce without archives.

At the same time, the world of art has been altered by the invention of the American museum, a development that Freudenheim lauds in his essay but fails to relate to the American Jewish Historical Society’s decision. Fully 40% of all museums in the world reside in the United States. Museums are in the exhibition business; they exist for no other reason than to provide a “museum experience” to their customers. Visitors go to museums for their magnificent galleries, opulent shops and gourmet cafes, even for singles to “hook up” with other singles — not for research, but for entertainment.

Historical societies, by contrast, are primarily in the business of collecting, cataloging and making their archives and rare books available to anyone interested. In practice, their audience consists mostly of a relatively small group of specialized researchers. It is obscure work with little glory and few blockbuster opportunities to attract large audiences.

Instinctively, when many people hear the word “archives,” they insert the terms “dry” and “dusty” in front of them. Major donors who want recognition for their cultural benefactions gravitate toward symphony orchestras and museums rather than historical societies. The most prestigious board of trustees of a Jewish cultural institution in New York City is that of the Jewish Museum, much as the Metropolitan Museum of Art board is the pinnacle of prestige in the broader cultural world of New York. Accordingly, many museums fund acquisitions without great difficulty and have large endowments, while small, independent Jewish archives such as the society and YIVO, which Freudenheim directed in the past, struggle from year to year to meet their operating budgets.

There was a time when the federation movement helped fund the American Jewish Historical Society, YIVO, the Leo Baeck Institute and other Jewish cultural preservation organizations through a joint cultural appeal administered by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. But the foundation has limited the size of its support for historical preservation and made its grants discretionary — while choosing, among other priorities, to commission the Paul Taylor Dance Company to choreograph a work celebrating 350 years of American Jewish history that will rarely be performed again. Perhaps this dance was more important than increased funding for Jewish archival preservation on the occasion of the 350th anniversary and I’m just too narrow to see why.

The issue of which museum or historical society holds a “Jewish” portrait is a red herring. Is Freudenheim concerned that a national museum under general, rather than Jewish, leadership purchased the paintings to desecrate them? That somehow its curators, conservators, designers and installers have unkosher hands? His argument is Jewish tribalism at its worst.

In the more than 100 years that the American Jewish Historical Society has owned the portraits, they have been on public display via traveling exhibitions for a total of approximately 12 months, or slightly more than 1% of the time. The acquiring museum will have a far better ability to restore, display, promote and travel the portraits than the society is ever likely to have.

When the society was established, its founders wanted to demonstrate to the overwhelmingly non-Jewish population of the United States that Jews had been an integral part of American society from at least 1654, if not from the time of Columbus. They wanted the rest of the people of the United States to know that Jews were not exclusively Johnny-come-lately, Lower East Side immigrants who congenitally lived in ghettoes. You can be sure that the donor who gave the portraits to the society did not mean for them to be housed where non-Jews would hardly ever view them.

Soon the portraits will be on permanent display in a setting that the society’s founders and the donor would likely approve of, a high visibility location at which tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews will view them alongside other American paintings and portraits. In a sense, their sale accomplishes the very purpose for which the American Jewish Historical Society was founded.

At the same time, the proceeds from the deaccession will be used to support that part of the society’s mission that is far more crucial over time than exhibitions, yet so much harder to fund through general public support. The funds will help assure the maintenance, cataloging and further collecting of the archival records of American Jewish organizations and leaders so that, 350 years from now, our descendants will be able to know how Jews lived in the United States in 2006 and beyond.

Michael Feldberg is director of research of the American Jewish Historical Society.

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