Cataloging a Cabinet of Curiosities

I often allude to the Abiquiú and Ghost Ranch cataloging project when writing about particularly interesting aspects of Miss O’Keeffe’s properties in New Mexico, the landscape that surrounds them, or objects from the homes that are important to the interpretation of Miss O’Keeffe’s life and work.  However, I feel it would be useful to examine how important the actual cataloging process for Miss O’Keeffe’s tangible personal property is to the study and understanding of collection objects.  When cataloging an object, it is vital to record as much information as possible by carefully conducting a visual examination of the object.  Cataloging records are meant to be as detailed as possible, because it is impossible to determine what information may be useful to future scholars who hope to research or even exhibit cataloged objects.

Upon evaluating an object, its name or title must first be determined.  Usually, this is done by consulting a volume of object nomenclature which contains proper classification names for everything from serving dishes to firearms.  Next, an exact date or bracket date is recorded, if it is possible to determine a production date for the object based on its appearance.  Then the object’s maker (if it is known) is recorded, its dimensions are taken, the materials it is composed of are recorded, a brief description of the object is attached to the record, any maker’s marks are noted, the credit line is recorded, and  its condition and any visible damage or deterioration is noted.  The cataloger notes the object’s location along with the date the object was placed at that location.  Lastly, the cataloger identifies him or herself by name on the catalog sheet.

The object is then marked, according to the material it is composed of, in either pencil, ink, or with an attachable label.  It is then photographed with an identifying marker of its accession number.  Any maker’s marks or significant, fine details are also photographed.  Occasionally, I or one of my colleagues will carefully administer gentle cleansing techniques to remove dust and sediment that have accumulated on the objects over time.

This process has been completed for well over one thousand catalog records at Miss O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch and Abiquiú homes.  This is indeed a time consuming and often seemingly overly detail-oriented exercise, but it is necessary to fully realize the collection’s potential to provide insight into Miss O’Keeffe’s life.  Recording and preserving as much information as possible on all of the Museum’s collection objects allows them to function as useful tools and points of reference for scholars and researchers to employ to shed light on details of Ms. O’Keeffe’s life that would otherwise be lost to history.

For example, Miss O’Keeffe’s extensive world travels are quite vividly reflected in her pantry, as the room contains food items, cookware, and pottery from cultures around the world.  The very visible presence of these cultural objects demonstrates the influence Miss O’Keeffe’s travel destinations had on her, and this influence is likewise paralleled in her art, evidenced by her depictions of places like Hawaii and Japan in her paintings.  While the contents of Ms. O’Keeffe’s pantry may initially appear inconsequential, they can be interpreted as supplemental to the understanding of how the places the artist visited affected her, and ultimately, her art.  This distinction dictates that it is useful to preserve as much information as possible on each object from the pantry, and the same principle applies to all of the tangible personal property dealt with in the cataloging project.

Even from this brief description, the process of cataloging such a massive cache of objects in such detail may appear tedious and overzealous.  However, it is also a necessary aspect of enriching the Museum’s collection and allowing it to function as an abundant scholarly resource.  The importance of the collection, and the efficient and thorough management of the collection, cannot be overstated, as any museum’s collection is, in a sense, the fuel source that allows the institution to remain in motion toward achieving its mission.

Patrick Gora, Curatorial Intern

Feature Photo: “Musei Wormiani Historia”, the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm‘s cabinet of curiosities, with its collection fully on display.  Use: Public Domain