Banner image of Pierugino's St. Augustine with Members of the Confraternity of Perugia (detail).

Why Museums Love Libraries

Without libraries, museums would be flying blind. We rely on our fellow information hoarders professionals to help us solve problems, guide us to resources, and occasionally go for a drink. In so many ways, libraries are the left to our right, and one of the places this relationship is most visible is provenance research.

Provenance research used to be a much more labor-intensive affair. Auction catalogues, travel diaries, and other archival material were held by a few libraries, and if you could figure out which repository had the material you were looking for, getting access was another issue entirely. Many books and papers were held in closed holdings that could only be accessed by appointment and by application. The researcher then had to travel to the library, get the book, maybe do a translation, and do the research.

Piece of cake, right? Except that there’s a bit of a secret about research. About 75% of the time, you don’t find what you’re looking for. Either someone’s citation was off, the information isn’t reliable, the author is incredibly vague about what painting they’re talking about, or the information is just not there. You could certainly spend a lot of money and time doing research, and get nowhere.

An oil painting that depicts a seated cleric. Behind him, four people in white robes kneel in prayer.
Pietro Perugino, St. Augustine with Members of the Confraternity of Perugia, ca. 1500. Carnegie Museum of Art, acquired through the generosity of Mrs. Alan M. Scaife.

Thankfully, our librarian and archivist friends have truly embraced the Internet and the networking of information. With the growing content on sites like HathiTrust(external link), Internet Archive(external link), and Gallica(external link), finding a Bernini bust(external link) in 1682(external link) has become a lot easier (page 104 locates the bust in Casa Ludovisi(external link)) and has significantly lowered the cost and time barrier, allowing more people to do more research more efficiently. From a preservation point of view, it means fewer hands on that 333-year-old book, but wider access than a single copy could ever reach.

Museum libraries making content available online has also been a huge help: The Getty has the Provenance Index(external link), which is a great starting point for provenance, the Metropolitan has an archive of dealer material, and The Frick Collection will also point you to the right dealer’s archive through their Archives Directory for the History of Collecting in America.

There are also some roundabout ways to find provenance information. Suspecting I had lost an “I” in transcription, I was checking to see if our St. Augustine with Members of the Confraternity of Perugia(external link) had been owned by King William I or William II of the Netherlands. A Google search (yes, research often starts with “Google it”) brought up an exhibit announcement featuring William II’s collection, and it included a drawing of a palace interior that featured detailed views of the King’s paintings. Thinking there might be more views of the collection, I followed the caption to the Rijksmuseum’s collection search(external link). By searching the artist, “Wijnantz”, I discovered there were a number of drawings(external link). Looking at each work closely, my heart stopped when I examined this one(external link).

A colored drawing of a large room hung with artwork in gilded frames.
Augustus Wijnantz, Interieur van de Gotische Zaal, Paleis Kneuterdijk, Den Haag, 1846. (Image via Rijksmuseum)

At the immediate left, above the marble column, above the painting of a woman, and below the window, with his distinctive bright robes and crozier, is unmistakably our St. Augustine. Since we know the date of the drawing, we now know with some certainty that King William II had it in his collection by 1846. It is a rare day when playing “Where’s Waldo?” with a Perugino pans out in your favor, but it might never have happened if the information hadn’t been available and accessible.

I don’t want to portray research as a completely online affair, because that’s absolutely false. Provenance research still requires physical libraries and archives. We’re extremely spoiled at CMOA, because we live in the same building as the main branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, giving us immediate access to 1.2 million barcoded items.*

Longtime Pittsburghers might remember that the Room of Requirement(external link)-style door that passed between the library and the Hall of Architecture-the door is still there, though access is now restricted for security reasons. You can also see the “brains” of the library stacks through the Dinosaurs in Their Time exhibit. So in every sense, the museum and the library are tied together.

A photo of a library interior.
The Frick Fine Art Library at the University of Pittsburgh (pictured) and Carnegie Mellon University’s Hunt Library are indispensable resources for provenance research. Image via Steven Danna on Flickr.

We also have the good fortune to be neighbors to the Frick Fine Art library(external link) at the University of Pittsburgh, and close to the Carnegie Mellon University Hunt Library(external link). It is a rare and pretty special thing to have this much information at our literal doorstep, and highly credentialed and dedicated professionals to help us navigate them.

Librarians have helped source some of the old and rare materials from around the country via WorldCat(external link) and interlibrary loan, guided me through relearning JSTOR skills, and even offered additional books because they were likely relevant to what I was reading about.

Without these services and access, we’re only getting part of the story. It is staggering to think about what is a click of a button, a walk, or a conversation away, and amazing to think how hard it would be to do provenance work without it. We can’t thank our library friends enough for their diligence, stewardship, and overall awesomeness, not to mention their excellent taste in cardigans.

A scanned image that shows two pages of a book.
Information on a Bernini bust from Filippo Baldunucci, Vita del cavaliere Gio. Lorenzo Bernino (1626). Screen capture via Internet Archive.

*Barcoded items include traditional media like books, DVD’s, etc. If you include non-barcoded media like maps, government documents, and microfilm, that number almost doubles. Thanks to Toby Greenwalt(external link) of CLP Main for this information.