Q&Archives: Activating Archives with The Metropolitan Museum of Art

An interview with Leah Constantine, Cataloguer at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sam Addeo
Sam Addeo
Aug 6, 2020 · 7 min read
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park Entrance facing north. Photographed on April 20, 1950

Archival photographs are a rich and complex resource. They are innately charged with meaning but sometimes disconnected from the people and places they represent when accessed in digital format. Our goal at Urban Archive is to help bridge this gap in the archival world and practice through collaboration and location technology. We aren’t starting from scratch, but instead building on the work of those who invest in the ongoing care of photographic collections to find new ways to surface and activate material digitally.

While there are endless ways to go about this work, our approach is centered on contextualizing historical records in situ at places of cultural significance — and what better person to talk about these ideas than with Leah Constantine, cataloguer at The Metropolitan Museum of Art!

Urban Archive: Tell us a bit about your role at the Met and the scope of the Museum’s collections.

Leah: As a cataloguer, I find that my role offers great exposure to The Met’s large and diverse image collections as well as an opportunity to explore the many archival documents that aid in my research for providing proper cataloguing. My physical workspace is settled in what was once The Met’s Image Library, which closed and reorganized its collections in 2011. I also work closely with several of the former Librarians who are still contributing to the care of these image collections in their current roles. When I joined The Met, I was primarily focused on supporting the cataloguing, review, and organization of a large collection of digitized 35mm slides that had been stored for many years by various longtime staff in the Museum. The shared experiences from those former Librarians and their extensive knowledge of the Library’s collections are remarkably valuable in my professional work. Additionally, that knowledge has made me much more appreciative of the people that still diligently care for the many unique collections that have documented The Met’s history over time and still exist in the small corners of the museum today.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Photograph and Extension Division. Photographed February 9, 1939

So much of what I review in the image collections remain valuable to the documentation of the Museum’s history: office spaces, the staff at work, gallery photography, and unique moments such as events, construction, and the buildings’ vastly dynamic architectural pasts. I’ve witnessed thousands of unique moments and individual experiences that were captured in these images over time. Hardly a day goes by that I have not learned something new and important from The Met’s past, or simply witnessed someone’s excitement of just being at the Museum. That knowledge that I have gained has made me so much more passionate about the work that I do in preserving and cataloguing the visual narratives for the future. I hope everyone who comes after me has the same opportunities to be moved by these images in their own ways.

Urban Archive: From a digital access and engagement standpoint, how has the Museum historically worked with its collections? What new and creative uses have been activated through technology and recent digital projects?

Leah: When the photographic prints and slides were collected by The Met’s former Image Library, the analog images were portable and replicable traditionally within the boundaries of the museum and with the assistance of the full library staff. Outside the boundaries of the library, the Image Library staff would occasionally arrange opportunities for visitors to preview the slide collections in the galleries with the slides mounted on lightboxes. In addition to this, some slide reproductions could even at one point be purchased in The Met Store and made part of anyone’s personal collections. However, all of these efforts to make collections more accessible to the public before ubiquitous technologies did not change the fact that outside researchers and interested audiences were bound by the physical limitations of the images and the accessibility of equipment required to properly view them.

Now, many of our images can be discovered and accessed by staff in our internal digital asset management system. Internal distribution has provided staff with greater discoverability and enhanced the scholarship of our work with the use of these images. The advancement of external access is in large part supported by the digital collections available from the Thomas J. Watson Library, expanding the public’s access to rare materials and supporting the documentation of many digitized collections. Many of the materials from the Library’s digital collections are profoundly useful in my own work as well. The digital collections are not only endlessly discoverable but are completely special.

Snapshot of The Met’s story “Celebrating 150 Years of The Met” on Urban Archive. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue Facade; View of the facade and banner for “Medieval Art from Private Collections,” (October 30, 1968-March 30, 1969) including special Cloisters shuttle bus for visitors. Photographed in 1968–1969

Some of the digitized images from the Image Library’s collections have also made their way to The Met’s Urban Archive platform to create an informed experience for users who access our images on the platform. In April, I created a story to highlight how The Met’s many buildings have chronicled its 150-year history into the magnificent site that so many of us know and love today. This experience allows audiences the ability to view how the progressive history of The Met’s architecture has evolved and offers unique narratives to understanding those changes over time.

Urban Archive: The Met has an incredibly rich architectural history. How does mapping archival imagery of the building in situ contextualize documentation of the Museum and contribute to the visitor experience?

A “then-and-now” recreation of The Met captured by Leah in 2019.

Leah: The most interesting part of The Met’s architectural history is that some of it can still be experienced by the physical visitor without them even realizing it. Using the archival imagery from our collections to highlight the landmark changes of the building aids in the visitor’s ability to actually walk through history. People like me who come to New York look forward to experiencing the physical history of this city and exploring the sites of “what once was” and “what has been” around our modern world.

The Museum’s building has experienced everything from pandemics to parades and throughout all of that history has acted as a beacon to so many seeking solitude and rejuvenation in its galleries. I think the same will still be true as we continue to document The Met’s next 150 years of existence.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wing K, first floor, room 2; View facing south, during construction. Photographed February 1925 (left) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art; View showing the construction of the south façade of Wing J, facing northwest. Photographed April 2, 1915 (right)

Urban Archive: What’s the most interesting archival discovery you’ve made as a cataloguer at the Met?

Leah: The actual archival collections at The Met are so vast that I don’t think I can say that one personal discovery stands out from the rest. The former Image Library staff and our current Library and Archives teams have mutually contributed great scholarship to the collections, and a large part of my discovery is often aided by their already identified resources. While there are many highlights that I remember in the collections, what I end up learning and rediscovering while cataloguing the photographs are more connected to my growing appreciation for the people who contributed to this particular narrative and were part of the individual documented moment in this history.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Great Hall (Wing D, Gallery 1); Elevated view facing north with students from Washington Irving High School. Photographed May 25, 1926

The most interesting thing, I would have to admit, is learning about the people who have been photographed in the Museum over time. For over a century, people have gathered in the Great Hall, adding their presence to a collective memory that has continued over generations in that space. Every doorway into the Museum has a special meaning for the millions of people who have crossed its threshold, despite the many architectural changes it may have sustained over time. I think of those people, their memories, and their interactions every time I can walk through the Great Hall while the museum is at its most tranquil. Examining those personal experiences of the many people who have explored The Met over time is more valuable to me than any single discovery I’ve made.

Images © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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