The dictionary definition of an archive is a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people. In theory, this is true; in practice, archives are more difficult to pin down. They are places shaped by resources that include funds to create and maintain them, physical parameters like storage space, individuals who make decisions about what constitutes material worth adding to the historical record, and taxonomical methodologies chosen to sort often vast quantities and varied types of material. As part of “Black Power in Print,” longtime MFA archivist Maureen Melton reflects on the Museum’s archives and the process of finding Dana Chandler’s manifesto within them.
In 1970, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts presented the exhibition “Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston,” also referred to as “Black Artists: New York and Boston.” At that time, the MFA had no contemporary art department. The exhibition was organized by Edmund Barry Gaither, curator and director of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA) and a consulting curator for the MFA, whose records documenting the exhibition never went to the MFA after the exhibition closed and were instead stored at the NCAAA. Since its founding in 1870 and well into its second century, the MFA generally did not take records that consultants and curators not on staff created while organizing exhibitions, and for a good reason.
The MFA didn’t have an archives department until late 1987, when I became the founding archivist, which meant that for its first 117 years, there was no one on staff to organize and preserve important documents created at the Museum or received from outside of it.
When I arrived, I began seeking, gathering, appraising, and organizing MFA records from offices, attics, basements, and off-site warehouses. That’s when I found the records created during Perry T. Rathbone’s tenure as Director (1955–72), which were housed in an attic over the MFA’s main library.
Rathbone had a large collection of records specifically concerning exhibitions. That’s where I found many folders with materials from the “Black Artists” exhibition. I’ve been sharing these records with curators from the MFA’s Department of Contemporary Art for decades.
These records, which Rathbone and his secretary organized and retained, were mostly about the mechanics of the exhibition itself. Given that these came from the Director’s files and not the contemporary art department (because, again, there was no contemporary art department), I was pleased to find such a robust collection of records. There was much less documentation for many other exhibitions. I believe, from the amount of documentation he kept, that Rathbone was deeply interested and involved in the exhibition.
Although I was delighted to find these documents, there was one important document I did not find with the exhibition records, which was to become the object of intense searching over the years: a letter Dana Chandler sent to the MFA. It was his “Proposal to Eradicate Institutional Racism at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts,” dated January 15, 1970, and generally referred to as Chandler’s manifesto.
The first time I was asked about that document, many years ago, I looked carefully through the “Black Artists” records in the director’s files but didn’t find it. I found a number of other letters between Rathbone and Chandler, some even referring to the manifesto, but no copy of that letter itself.
Had I been organizing the director’s records back in 1970, I would have filed the document together with the other “Black Artists” exhibition records. But I wasn’t here, and there were no archives then, so I had to try to think of where else the director’s secretary might have filed it.
My first guess was that perhaps if the director’s secretary did not include it with the exhibition files it was because she thought it might have been more global in scope. So I began searching other files from the director’s office that I had recovered in storage, under every name or title I could think of including “Chandler,” “Afro-American Artists,” “Black Artists,” “Manifesto,” and “Institutional Racism,” but I never found a copy of the document.
I thought it possible that Gaither, the “Black Artists” exhibition curator, would have a copy of the document in his archive, but he did not. The Chandler family also had not retained a copy.
After sending the proposal back in 1970, Dana Chandler was invited to meet with the MFA trustees, so I hoped that their meeting records might include a copy of the manifesto. I searched the trustee minutes for supplementary materials from that meeting—but there were none. None of this is unusual. When an institution doesn’t have an archives program, there can be no expectation of careful record retention by staff not trained in archival documentation. Over the years I’ve found that trustee records sometimes include supplementary materials, but often they don’t.
I can’t account for how folks saved or did not save records before I arrived, and it’s frustrating when we can’t find important materials that should have been saved. Archivists can organize the records of the past when we find them, but we can’t find records that weren’t preserved.
The director’s files were my last hope for finding Chandler’s manifesto, so I had to continue searching for it in other collections of Rathbone’s correspondence and other administrative records, which are voluminous. Over the years I continued searching, looking in folders under all the names and titles I could imagine, but to no avail.
This spring, with the acquisition of the Chandler artwork Fred Hampton’s Door 2, my desire to find the document for the Department of Contemporary Art led me to do something I’ve never done before—I decided to try a Hail Mary search. I pulled out many of the 50-pound boxes of Rathbone’s general correspondence from A to Z and began looking through the folders alphabetically—one by one—to see if the document might have been filed under a name or title that I had not yet thought to search.
I worked my way through all the folders beginning with the letters A and B, and deeply through those beginning with C—and then I found it, in a folder labeled “Community,” which held a lot of miscellaneous correspondence about many different issues and organizations. There were no other materials in that file regarding Dana Chandler, Black artists, or any other related subjects. Just a copy of the manifesto! I have no idea how or why it wound up there, since the director’s secretary filed it 50 years ago. I was just delighted to find it.
When an institution does not have an archives department, there is no question that historically valuable records will get lost, misplaced, or thrown away. I cannot even guess how many important documents were lost or discarded over the first 117 years of MFA history before I arrived. But I’m very glad there was a happy ending in this case.
Maureen Melton is the Susan Morse Hilles Director of Libraries and Archives, and Museum historian.