“It was a fine thing for me to have something lying on the bench before me made by one of the old men, and my hands doing again what his had done.” The Blacksmith in Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (1969)
Most of us date the contemporary crafts movement from some time after the Second World War and think of its great patrons—like the Johnson family—as products of a recent phenomenon. But we all know, too, that there are always “contemporary crafts” —and that what is contemporary craft today is a traditional art tomorrow, and one that others will draw upon in their own work. For the molding of materials by hand into things that show their maker’s love for the medium is man’s oldest art and much his most continuous. We were forming sophisticated objects, and taking pleasure in them, long before we could write or speak on the same civilized level. And some of the forms that were first made—like those that hold water or carry grains—have passed through the ages unchanged. There have always been craftsmen and there have always been patrons with pride in the individuality of their objects and as great a pride in the traditions that inspired them. The wheels of the wagons at Akenfield were done in Chinese red and lined-out in Venetian red, which was marvelously expensive . . . (but) the farmers were very proud of their wagons and tumbrils and would wash them down every weekend.”
Until the modern era, however, the methods, names and reputations of craftsmen were bound up in local knowledge and private traditions, and their work—once it ceased to be useful or in vogue—fell upon the rusty heaps of history: “My father . . . was a first class wheelwright and was known all over Suffolk, and my grandfather and great-grandfather were the same. They all worked in this same shop and the wagons they made lie about in the farmyards.” The names of their makers might soon be forgotten, but in their day the decorations and style of each would label its shop.
There is little we can do now to document the work of people whose craft and style were learned by emulation and apprenticeship, or whose traditions were passed along by birth, or whose skill was brought to perfection only with the momentary judgment of the eye and hand. Even basic techniques, like those of the Sung potters or the great steel blademakers of the last century, have been lost for good. We can no more do the same again than we could make a cheese whose culture was lost, or recast a bronze whose mold is struck. “I don’t have a catalogue,” explained the smith at Akenfield. “I don’t like making two of anything.” Except for the objects themselves, then, he left no record of his work.
Now, when the pursuit of a craft is a matter of choice rather than birth and necessity, the picture can be very different For those at work in our own times, enough of a record can be saved to let those who come after them know—whatever the change in fashion—exactly who did what, and where: for whom, and how. The problem in keeping records, though, is always this: that by keeping too much we often save nothing. For we leave our successors so much, and in such disorder, that the temptation to discard it all or ignore it (which destroys it just as successfully) is irresistible. The basis of a decent respect for written records lies first in a sense of ruthless discretion about what to keep, and secondly in efforts to set up modest and manageable procedures for maintaining them.
What papers should be saved?
For the craftsman: catalogs; exhibition catalogs and announcements; a job record of work done under contract; a diary; and any general bookkeeping record that reflects material purchased and goods sold. In a larger workshop, add production records that show work done, when and by whom. Such records as shipping, order and sales books might well be regarded as serving only a temporary purpose, especially if there is a general ledger that accurately reflects the number and type of goods sold and the pattern of distribution. For some craftsmen, all designs and design notes may be of lasting value. But in almost all cases a selection of different examples of work in its design stages may provide a more usable guide to the artist’s styles and methods. Specifications for work done on commission and photographs of objects made might also be sampled, once their legal or working life has ended. But photographs of work processes are almost invariably of lasting historical value. Clippings and other publicity received present some problems. They are only worth preserving if they say something new or critical about the work and the craftsman. Announcements in the press that merely repeat information in press releases, catalogs or flyers are of no importance. Business and personal correspondence should be divided. Of the former, that with other craftsmen about work, equipment or technique should be saved, as well as that which reflects an exhibition or commission.
For organizations and museums, the charter, annual reports, board minutes and newsletters are the most important summary of activities. A periodic copy of the membership list can also be archived, and—as with the craftsworker—central bookkeeping records are an essential piece of documentation. Exhibition files or fair records present special difficulties: Catalogs, checklists and sales records of exhibitors are vital, as are any photographic records of objects and installations; but the value of correspondence with exhibitors and about work shown or rejected varies with its subject—loan records being vital documents and most accompanying papers (shipping forms and letters, insurance, etc.) being discardable as soon as any chance of claims has ended. But in all museum records, anything that documents the whereabouts or condition of an object may have special importance, and everything that records an artist’s comments on his work may, too. Again clippings and publicity files make sense in an archives only where they do more than merely repeat dates, schedules or the description of your own press package.
How should papers be kept?
The only thing the originator has to do for the records is the first step: to look through the morgues around him to find them. Once the graveyard is marked, there are innumerable choices about who and how to keep the tombstones, from arranging for deposit at a local archives or with the Archives of American Art to setting up an archives section of the library or simply buying a fireproof safe. It would be impossible to summarize methods and techniques here. But there are three vital rules to bear in mind in making decisions about what to do with your history, and, most especially, how much of it to do yourself.
First, remember that paper is cheap to make and expensive to preserve. Unless it is housed in a climatically stable and appropriate environment, it will deteriorate very quickly.
Second, recognize that you have never done anything quite like this before, and that others have. Papers are as nearly lost if they are mishandled, misfiled or misclassified as they would be in a fire. There is a wealth of literature on hand to help anyone avoid the pitfalls, and there are many sources of assistance, most of them free the regional office of the Archives of American Art, the state historical society, major local museums, regional conservation centers and paid consultant services. The Society of American Archivists, 330 South Wells Street, Suite 810, Chicago, IL 60606 can refer you to many of these sources of aid.
Third, face the future. How long is your enterprise going to survive?
Last, and perhaps most importantly, remember that the present turns into the past at an alarming rate. No document starts its life as an historical record. Each has a cycle, serving a working purpose for a time before it becomes a reference source or a curio or simply rubbish. The trick to saving what counts is to begin treating it with respect for its importance and an eye to its future from the moment it is made or received. Make sure, in short, that records of permanent value are made or copied on permanent paper, that they can be readily segregated from the routine papers that surround them, and that they reach a safe and accessible resting place as soon as their useful life has ended. The past begins today—and our memory of it is up to you.