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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Betsy’s Travels through India

In the Freer | Sackler Archives our best volunteer is a woman named Betsy.  Betsy has been working in the archives since 2001.  Fifteen years of detailed and focused attention that has led to the creation and availability of the Smith and Pope collections.  She is the quintessential no-nonsense woman with a heart of gold.

Sometimes I think that the hard work that goes into making a collection available (doing basic preservation, creating the finding aid, organizing the materials, etc.) is overlooked.  Making a collection accessible to the public is a monumental task.  Collections generally do not arrive ready to be put online, with digital surrogates and finding aids.  Often collections are literally a palette of boxes pulled out of someone’s basement or an unorganized hard drive of materials.  The person who is tasked with organizing a collection for access to the public has to preserve the thought processes of the collection's creator and at the same time ensure that the materials are organized in such a way that they can be combed through by eager researchers.

Betsy hard at work in the Freer | Sackler Archives
This past year Betsy has been working hard on the papers of Dr. Prince Aschwin de Lippe-Biesterfeld, PhD (1914-1988).  Lippe was curator in the Far Eastern Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1949 until 1973. He specialized in Chinese Classical Paintings.  The subject matter of this collection was a bit out of Betsy’s wheelhouse of knowledge, but she is more than capable of working through a collection regardless of subject matter expertise.

from Left to Right): James Cahill, Aschwin de Lippe, H. Bevil, and John Pope.  Taken at National Gallery of Art, 1961. 
There were, of course, some bumps along the way.  The biggest speed bump came with trying to identify locations in the countless photograph slides that Lippe had taken during his travels and study of India.  Betsy has a lot of experience with photographs and she first approached this problem from the angle of making all the negative and slide numbers match to at least give these photographs a sense of order for researchers. Secondarily, she made note of any writing on slides photographs and added those to the finding aid she was building in tandem with her physical overhaul of the Lippe collection.

Some of these notes had difficult to read hand writing.  One particular slide note was hard to read and Betsy asked me if I could make it out.  I starred at it for a while, afraid to verbalize my answer.  She jumped in and said it looks like the second word looked like Butterball, but I can’t make out the first word.  I felt better that I was not the only one who thought it said Butterball.  After a little time we determined that the first word was Krishna.  Since neither of us are subject matter experts, I did a search online and low and behold we discovered that Krishna’s Butterball is a real rock in India.

Krishna’s Butterball in Mahabalipuram, India. Prince Aschwin de Lippe Papers 1940-1988,FSA A2012.01 Box 11, Folder 33
Krishna’s Butterball is one small example of the amount of research and time that goes into making materials clear and organized. Betsy had to check out several books from the library to cross check and confirm locations in India.  She had to completely read through and then figure out a way to order Lippe’s research notes and notebooks so that they both preserved Lippe’s thought processes and could actually be accessed by scholars.

Working on an archival collection is always a long game.  Sometimes you only organize a few folders due to the complexity of the materials. Other days you have epiphanies about connections between various scattered materials and can go through several boxes. We are lucky to have someone as intelligent, tenacious, and dedicated as Betsy working in the Freer |Sackler Archives.

Collections Betsy has Organized:
Myron Bement Smith Collection
John Pope Papers
Prince Aschwin de Lippe Papers

Lara Amrod
Freer | Sackler Archives

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