Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Working Holiday in Puerto Rico

Ever since my colleague and friend Annie Santiago left Washington for Puerto Rico in the 1980s, after she had served on the staff of the National Museum of History and Technology (now American History) for a few years, I had been promising to visit her and her family in Puerto Rico “sometime.”  Decades passed and I never made this promised trip, partly because I saw Annie on her infrequent visits to Washington. However, after she e-mailed me a research question in early January, we revived the notion of my finally taking that trip to her island, and I went from April 17-20. Thanks to Annie’s unflagging energy and continuing dedication to research in Puerto Rican art and cultural history, and her enthusiasm for museums and archives in general, however, she transformed my mini-“vacation” into work-related professional travel (which I trust will prove to be tax-deductible).   From her base in San Juan, she drove us to Ponce, Cayey, and several other spots to see museums and archives and to meet her professional colleagues and friends.

With Antonio Martorell and his archivist
At the Ramón Frade art museum on the Cayey campus of the University of Puerto Rico, we viewed an exhibition devoted to the artist Ramón Frade and his influence, a wide-ranging, imaginative show. While we spoke to director Umberto Figueras, we were greeted by the well-known artist Antonio Martorell, regarded as a cultural ambassador for Puerto Rico.  He was showing his daughter-in-law and grandson around the campus. He has been artist-in-residence at the university for many years, and his personal and professional papers are being professionally managed by an archivist. His archives contains not only papers, photographs, and similar documents, but also a collection of his hats. With obvious affection and pride, he showed us hats that had been hand-painted by members of a high school class he had taught. He said that the students entered the room dancing and singing, each wearing one of the painted hats in his honor, because his beloved hats are almost a personal trademark. He must be an excellent teacher and/or his students were particularly gifted, as the paintings on the hats looked exquisite, skillful and professional in technique and conception.

Antonio Martorell and his painted hats
He then took us all to lunch, including Annie’s daughter Isar, a researcher at the university. I hadn’t seen her since she was twelve years old. Then Annie and I visited the lovely, sparkling art museum, Museo de Arte de Ponce.  Our guide was a conservator, Angel (“Archie”) Santiago (no relation to Annie), who had been in residence at our museum a few years ago.

Besides touring the exhibitions, we visited the well-equipped conservation laboratory. Then we visited Martorell’s Ponce studio, a vast and quirky warehouse space with a lush garden in the back, the interior crowded with his own paintings, witty sculptures, and prints, books and collectibles, as well as work by other artists.

Antonio Martorell and Annie Santiago in his studio
Friday morning found us at the home of the great collector and scholar of Puerto Rican folk art, Teodoro Vidal, a real highlight of the trip. Vidal is an important donor to our museum, and his immense collection of santos and many other types of Puerto Rican objects is complemented by his archival collection, residing in the Archives Center. Mr. Vidal is still collecting and studying avidly.  It turned out that he wanted to consult me on his fascinating nineteenth-century photographs, including photographic jewelry—tiny portraits nestled in functioning cuff links, rings, earrings, brooches, etc. While I identified and differentiated albumen prints from tintypes and ambrotypes, his assistants took notes.

Yours truly, inspecting Teodoro Vidal's collection of photographic jewelry
Soraya Serra Collazo, Teodoro Vidal, Karen Ayala, Luis Moises Perez, and Annie Santiago
We spent the afternoon at the Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín, where the young supervisory archivist Dax Collazo Muñoz showed us the grounds and Muñoz’s house, modern archival storage facilities, and the reference room. Construction on an additional building is in progress.

Yours truly with Dax Collazo Muñoz
at the Fundación Luis Muñoz Marín
I’ve always enjoyed combining business with pleasure, even on vacations. There was ample opportunity to explore Puerto Rican cuisine, flamenco dancing at dinner in Old San Juan, and other delights. It was over all too soon on Saturday when I flew back to Baltimore, but it was filled with memories—sights and sounds, delicious food (did I mention plantains?), many warm, delightful new friends and colleagues, impressive art, and much more. I hope to see them all again next year!

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography
NMAH Archives Center

No comments:

Post a Comment