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Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Archivists, curators, and librarians often have controversial materials in their collections, and the mere act of presenting them to the public in the form of exhibitions, publications, and online catalogues can be fraught with risks for such professionals and their institutions.  Among the most heated and memorable exhibition controversies in modern Washington history were the Robert Mapplethorpe crisis at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Enola Gay exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum, and "Hide/Seek" at the National Portrait Gallery.  In these cases public relations crises were matched by the almost inevitable accusations of censorship and restriction of free speech and expression which followed.  The well-intentioned organizers of a somewhat less well-remembered Library of Congress exhibition about slavery were astounded when many African American staff members were so offended that they demanded that the exhibition be closed.   One can think of many more famous examples of battles over exhibition content in Brooklyn, Cincinnati, and elsewhere over the years.
To a lesser extent, images and text posted online by institutions can also carry risks of offending segments of the public.  The National Museum of American History Archives Center's collections contain much historical material which reflects blatantly racial and ethnic stereotypes and prejudices of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.  As our cataloguing editor/coordinator, I often worry about how some of this material, when seen online, conceivably might offend someone so deeply that they could make my life miserable.  While I would welcome the opportunity to educate someone about our motives for presenting "offensive" historical material in our online catalogue or web pages, knowing how difficult it can be to convince offended, emotional people that your heart is in the right place can give one pause.  Call it cowardice if you wish, but I feel that exhibitions can legitimately seek to educate through provocation and confrontation, whereas through cataloguing I try to document and describe without unnecessary provocation.  I try to show and describe culturally offensive and insensitive material in a manner to make it clear that neither I nor my institution supports or endorses it.  We simply present it as historical evidence, sometimes with specific disclaimers.
Underwood and Underwood, publisher.  "Away down among the cotton and the coons," La.  [Quotation marks in original.]  Glass stereoscopic interpositive, ca. 1900-1910.   Underwood & Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection, NMAH Archives Center.

Above is an example of a stereo-stereotype, as I call them, a stereograph from a so-called "comic" set intended to appeal to white prejudices about African Americans.  Note the caption that accompanies this staged photograph, then follow the link to my catalogue description of it with a disclaimer.  Tell me what you think: is my explanation helpful or unnecessary--or inadequate on one hand, or too "politically correct" on the other?  (Apologies for the poor quality of the image--this will be remedied.)
Hoffeld and Co., advertising card, 1888.  Soap series, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, NMAH Archives Center
African Americans are not the only ethnic group represented in our visual materials who are subject to bias, ridicule, stereotyping, and "hate speech."  Our advertising collections contain thousands of captioned images which depict virtually every imaginable ethnic group in despicable ways.  Above is a comparatively rare example referring to Gypsies--or a "Gipsy camp."  It seems to represent a vaguely anti-Gypsy sentiment, but I frankly can't interpret it, and I would love to have someone explain it to me.
Carlos de Wendler-Funaro.  Rom woman
(Pupa Kaslov?), New York City, ca. 1939-1942.
  Carlos de Wendler-Funaro Gypsy Research Collection,
NMAH Archives Center
We have several collections containing photographs of Gypsies, especially the Carlos de Wendler-Funaro [aka Carl Funaro] Gypsy Research Collection.  In a later post I'll show a Funaro photograph which appears to demean Gypsies as thieves, reinforcing that particular stereotype, and which I hesitated to include in my exhibition of his work years ago.  Since the person having his pocket picked is actually the photographer himself, it is clear that it's a staged photograph with the participation of one of Funaro's Gypsy subjects.  I assumed, therefore, that the photograph was intended as a joking acknowledgement of that particular stereotype or assumption, and labeled it as such in an exhibition, since our advisor on Gypsy culture was wary and tried to talk me out of displaying it.
I would enjoy comparing notes with other cataloguers and archivists about strategies for the "objective" presentation of racially and culturally insensitive visual materials.

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography
Archives Center, National Museum of American History


  1. David, great post. The act of cataloguing is political, it depends on how much you conceive subject attribution, in this case "racism", does the job. While I understand a desire to recognise and comment on the confronting nature of some content, I am aware of what message we send to the viewer by adding interpretive information into cataloguing processes. Do they need to be warned? Do they need to be educated? What was the motivation for adding the editor's note to the photo? I'm interested to know. Ingrid

  2. Ingrid, thanks very much for your comment. My motivation in adding the comments is to try to make it clear(er) that the captions and title of the series are the publisher's, not the cataloguer's. The subtleties of our uses of bracketed supplied titles, quotation marks, etc., might be confusing or amibiguous to users, so I'm trying to prevent misunderstandings and overreactions.

    David Haberstich

  3. Have you thought about using terminology from the ALA/ACRL Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Genre terms list?

    They have a "Literature of prejudice" hierarchy that includes headings that may be useful in bringing out that aspect of the material that you are cataloging.

    The "literature of prejudice" terminology is here:

    Best wishes,

    Faye Leibowitz
    General Languages Catalog Librarian
    University Library System
    University of Pittsburgh

  4. Thanks very much for this "literature of prejudice" lead. I wasn't aware of the resource, and will certainly familiarize myself with it.

    David Haberstich

  5. I think the soap advert is meant to indicate just how strong and effective the soap is -- it washes away the odor of cabbage. Probably also meant to indicate that Romanies should use the soap.

    I thought your editorial note was a fine example of providing some content for the public using your catalog. Cutter's third objective is "To assist in the choice of a [resource] ... as to its character." Well done.

    I've done similar notes as well, though not often.

    Daniel CannCasciato

    Head of Cataloging / Central Washington University Brooks Library