Taft Museum Creates a Show From Its Fascinating Archives

Pages of History: 80 Years at the Taft was on view Aug. 10-Jan. 6, and I saw it on the last day. I found it so fascinating — and such a role model for a show about a cultural institution — that it’s worth discussing even though it’s over.

Jan 23, 2013 at 10:13 am
click to enlarge Sinton-Taft family
Sinton-Taft family

Maybe because the Taft Museum of Art was such a major player in FotoFocus with its Star Power: Edward Steichen’s Glamour Photography exhibit, I managed to (almost) completely miss a second smaller but extremely impressive show it had at roughly the same time.

Pages of History: 80 Years at the Taft was on view Aug. 10-Jan. 6, and I saw it on the last day. I’d actually come to see the annual Antique Christmas exhibit and stumbled onto it. I found it so fascinating — and such a role model for a show about a cultural institution — that it’s worth discussing even though it’s over. It was the first show the Taft, which usually does art exhibits, had ever done about its past. There were definitely lessons to be learned locally. 

Art museums, as well as other museums and all sorts of public and private institutions, store archival material in their libraries — often in boxes awaiting researchers. A lot of that material consists of documents — letters, brochures, inventories, manuscripts, etc. But there can be all sorts of unusual ephemera. 

The Taft is a special case — it is an art museum and a house museum. An example of Federal architecture, it was built in 1820 for Martin Baum and eventually owned by David Sinton, whose daughter Anna lived there with husband Charles Phelps Taft. Serious and important art collectors, the Tafts bequeathed their home and collection to the people of Cincinnati, and the museum opened in 1932 shortly after their deaths. It contains important work by Sargent, Goya, Gainsborough, Turner and many others. 

That’s fairly dry information, true. (It’s on the museum’s website.) But Pages of History brought it to life smashingly well. Assistant Curator Tamera Muente — working with Director Deborah Emont Scott and Chief Curator Lynne Ambrosini — was able to delve into all the documentation relating to that bequest and much more. 

And the show wasn’t stuffy or dry — or obvious. There was a rare photograph of David and Anna Sinton, with Charles Taft present, at the home from 1871, before Taft married Anna. And it was thrilling to see William Howard Taft accepting the 1908 Republican nomination for president on the building’s front steps, while a large crowd gathered throughout Lytle Park. (He was Charles’ half-brother.) 

It was inventive, even a bit cheeky, to include objects unearthed during the 2001-2004 excavation for the new parking garage: old bottles for milk, Bromo Seltzer and digestive ferments. “This selection of 19th and early-20th century bottles gives insight into beverages and pharmaceutical products used by the Taft family,” an exhibition label informed us.

The most compelling material was the correspondence concerning the way the Tafts built their art collection. We learned from a 1922 invoice from Scott & Fowles dealers that Taft made a $21,000 payment toward Sargent’s famous portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson. 

There was also a letter from Charles Fowles about Taft’s purchase of paintings by Gainsborough (“Portrait of Edward and William Tomkinson”), Turner (“Europa and the Bull”) and Jozef Israels (one of two that entered the collection in 1905): “I am indeed proud to place such a work in your collection,” Fowles said of the Gainsborough. “Also the Turner I feel sure will afford you lasting enjoyment as it is a work that cannot be taken in on first or second sight but develops wonderfully the more one sees it.” 

To me, the Taft show was a wake-up call to think of such archives not just as repositories but as veritable museums — destinations — in their own right. History museums and collecting libraries do draw from them regularly for specific shows, although they could do more. And I’ve noticed a growth in the display of composer lyric sheets at places like L.A.’s Grammy Museum and New York’s Morgan Library.  

I realize there’s a case to be made for an art museum to focus on the purity — and pure beauty — of an object unencumbered by context or history. But archival material can be beautiful, too. In art, we’ve grown accustomed to the use of text — words — as a visual element, thanks to Ed Ruscha, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and others. 

It isn’t that big of a leap to want to see displayed documents and related objects about a museum and its art collection and exhibits. Maybe even a permanent Museum Archives gallery.


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