Last Friday afternoon, the Williams College Museum of Art (WMCA) rotunda hosted a talk by Anne Ritchie, chief archivist and oral historian at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Her job consists mainly of amassing and studying the history of the museum, preserving a variety of facts, figures and personalities for generations to come. Ritchie’s role can often go forgotten by a public that usually only sees the results of the curators’ work at a museum, but her job is important nonetheless.
By the time Ritchie arrived at the National Gallery in 1990, the institution had already undergone many important changes since it opened in 1941 with funds donated by wealthy financier Andrew Mellon. Though her position was only intended to last two years, she has been employed at the museum ever since.
One of the biggest parts of Ritchie’s job is conducting interviews with members of the past and present staff of the museum, ranging from board members to security guards. Back in 1990, many of the people who staffed the museum when it originally opened were still alive, and eager to have their stories heard. Ritchie recounted the stories of numerous people such as Thelma, a telephone operator who was known more for being an office gossip than for managing the phones. Or Noel Smith, a horticulturalist who designed the original flower arrangements for the courtyard, who never returned to the National Gallery after he retired. She even interviewed Bill Mann, the architect of the newer East Building, who continued to visit his building even once he was bound to a wheelchair.
Ritchie expressed fascination with the work of couriers, who are entrusted with the all-important job of transporting priceless works of art across international borders. Apparently, these interviews are often hilarious, as everyone has at least one story of getting off a plane in Washington and finding out that their Van Gogh was left behind in London.
Ritchie’s favorite interviewee is still Arthur Wheelock ’65, the curator for Northern European art at the museum. According to Ritchie, Wheelock’s first response when asked about every exhibit he has curated is, “Oh! I love that one!” Over the course of their many interviews, which usually document Wheelock’s experience in creating the upwards of 30 exhibitions he has curated, he has revealed many of the intricacies of being a curator at a major art museum. He has spoken of the difficulties in getting new works of art approved by the museum board, particularly when so many different curators are competing for funds. Wheelock “is not afraid to tell it like it is,” often dropping names in describing frustrations and roadblocks in his long process. Thus, his interviews are sealed, and not available for view by the public.
This is a rare case – most of the interviews conducted by Ritchie are available both at the museum and online. Ritchie makes a conscious attempt to seal as little as possible from the public, seeing it as her duty to preserve the museum’s history for their benefit. Typically, the only interviews that are sealed are done so at the request of the interviewee, and that request is made very rarely considering that they had to consent to being interviewed in the first place.
Ritchie emphasized the changes in technology that she has seen in her time at the National Gallery. When she began interviewing, she had to carry around physical tapes so large that they required a suitcase in order to transport them. Now she uses digital, which is easier in many respects, but she often finds herself “missing the small rituals that came along with winding the old-fashioned tapes.”
Ritchie considers herself lucky. Most museums’ archival departments are far smaller than her own at the National Gallery, where she not only has a full staff, but also interns and access to the whole Smithsonian network of personnel and information. In her career, the most important lesson she has learned is to be unafraid. She “is no longer afraid to ask the tough questions” when conducting an interview. She no longer lets a fear of awkwardness or of insulting her interviewee prevent her from getting an answer she feels is relevant to the history of the museum. In addition, while she once struggled to question the janitors and security guards, often fearing that she sounded as though she was belittling them, she now knows they get an unparalleled view of the museum during hours when no one else is present.
So the next time you’re at a museum, whether it is WCMA or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, think of the history behind it. There’s much more to learn about beside what hangs on the walls.