Intern Sarah Casto discusses a project to preserve the Macbeth Gallery scrapbooks, which she and intern Marie Desrochers stabilized and prepared for digitization.
This summer, Marie Desrochers and I had the privilege of interning at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (AAA) and Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA). Our project to work with the Macbeth Gallery scrapbooks—a collection of twenty volumes held by the AAA—was generously funded by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee. To read more about the condition and conservation treatment of these scrapbooks, please visit SIA’s The Bigger Picture blog. Under the supervision of SIA senior conservator Nora Lockshin and AAA registrar Susan Cary, Marie and I examined, stabilized, and rehoused all twenty scrapbooks during our ten-week summer internships.
The primary goal of our work was to stabilize these aging scrapbooks to prepare them for digitization. Their fragile nature makes them difficult to handle without causing damage—scrapbooks of this era were made with highly acidic paper which, while often marketed as “permanent,” becomes discolored and brittle with a tendency to tear easily and crumble as it ages. We mended tears, reinforced fragile edges, readhered loose items, and added spacers to their boxes to help make handling and storage safer. High-resolution imaging will not only make the information they contain much easier for researchers to access, but will aid in the preservation of the scrapbooks. To some, these scrapbooks may only seem to contain old bits of paper, but to scholars of American art they are full of important historical information. This is why the stabilization and digitization of the Macbeth Gallery scrapbooks is so important.
William Macbeth founded the Macbeth Gallery in 1892 in New York, N.Y., and his was the first gallery in that era to deal exclusively in American art. The gallery became a family business: Macbeth’s son Robert took over as president after his father’s death in 1917; and Robert McIntyre, nephew of William Macbeth, joined the firm in 1903, becoming president after Robert’s death in 1940. Macbeth Gallery is perhaps most famous for its sensational exhibition in 1908 of paintings by eight American artists, called “The Eight.” The gallery closed in 1953, but not before representing and exhibiting art by American artists such as Cecilia Beaux, Arthur B. Davies, Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, Winslow Homer, Rockwell Kent, Felicia Meyer Marsh, Elihu Vedder, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, W. C. Wyeth, and Andrew Wyeth. Correspondence from artists including Jane and Ellen Emmet, Edna Reindel, Anne Goldthwaite, Constance Richardson, and Molly Luce is also found in the Macbeth Gallery records.
Before the current era of online news alerts, businesses subscribed to clipping services to monitor press coverage on selected topics. These companies employed people to read, identify, cut, collate, and forward relevant items from newspapers, magazines, and other publications. Businesses and individuals compiled the clippings in scrapbooks for reference. Between 1892 and 1953, Macbeth Gallery filled these twenty scrapbooks with excerpts from newspapers, art reviews, exhibition catalogs, postcards, invitations, advertisements, and other items about their exhibitions and activities. This information is compiled chronologically and most scrapbooks contain a handwritten alphabetical index of artists and exhibitions found inside each book.
Although the Macbeth Gallery scrapbooks have become brittle and discolored over time, the information they contain remains significant: historians and researchers might be interested to read about how certain exhibitions and artists were received in reviews by contemporary art critics. Handwritten prices inside exhibition catalogs may be important to art dealers, collectors, and museums who currently own works of art which were exhibited or sold through the gallery. A few photographs of the gallery’s interior offer a glimpse of how works of art were exhibited in relation to one another.
Our work this summer ensured the Macbeth Gallery scrapbooks were stable enough to be digitally imaged. Even after stabilization, the scrapbooks will continue to deteriorate because of their highly acidic materials. Although our intervention helped improve their current condition, they should be handled as little as possible. While scrapbooks are often challenging items for archivists, conservators, and researchers, after digitization it will be possible to access each page of the Macbeth Gallery scrapbooks online or on our website without the risk of pages tearing at the touch of a finger.
Sarah Casto was a Smithsonian Women’s Committee conservation intern at the Archives of American Art and Smithsonian Institution Archives during the summer of 2015. Sarah is a second-year graduate student at Buffalo State College’s Art Conservation Department, specializing in the conservation of paper and photographic materials.