Cataloging Harvard's Ephemera

By Lawrence Biemiller

Cambridge, Mass. -- About six years ago, Emilie Norris realized that Harvard University was far better at tracking supplies of things like floor wax than it was at keeping tabs on thousands of important and valuable objects it had acquired over the years.

Works in its museums, of course, were all carefully inventoried. Ms. Norris knew that because she had long been a curator at the university's Busch-Reisinger Museum, which is devoted to Central and Northern European art. She also knew that Harvard's portrait collection had been cataloged since 1907, and that an inventory of its historic clocks had been done for a conference in the 1990s. Some smaller collections had been cataloged as well.

But what about the valuable rugs and antique furniture and all those sculptures scattered around the campus? There wasn't even a rudimentary list of what was where, much less any assessment of the objects' value or condition. Some rare and costly pieces were sitting unguarded, she knew, while others were deteriorating or just forgotten.

Occasionally someone from one of the university's notoriously independent departments or schools would get in touch with one of its museums about a painting or carpet that was in bad shape and needed conservation, and Ms. Norris says staff members were happy to help out. But that was a hit-or-miss approach. She and other curators remembered all too well how a series of spectacular murals painted by Mark Rothko for a sunny faculty dining room had faded into insignificance over a 15-year period in the 1960s and '70s while no one at the university was paying much attention. The blame was partly Rothko's -- he used cheap, unstable paints -- but the fact that valuable works of art had deteriorated right in front of the Harvard faculty's eyes remained a stinging embarrassment.

The more Ms. Norris thought about it, the more she thought cataloging the university's treasures sounded like a job she'd enjoy herself. But it took her a while to make her case. Finally, three years ago, she carried horror stories and photos of unprotected valuables to a meeting with a man who turned out to be the perfect backer for her project: Harvey V. Fineberg, who was then the university's provost (he has since become president of the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies, in Washington). "There has to be some sort of a sponsor or person with clout," Ms. Norris says.

Now she is just a few months away from completing an initial building-by-building survey of what she refers to, for lack of a better term, as Harvard's "cultural properties." She expects to have some 3,300 records in her database by the time the project ends this spring. They will list objects as predictable as tables and as unique as the last handle for the Harvard College pump and the walking stick that belonged to Josiah Quincy, Harvard's president from 1829 to 1845, who is remembered for expelling the entire sophomore class after its members complained that they had been served rancid butter.

"The assumption was not that there would be eureka finds," says Ms. Norris. Instead, the goal was to create an inventory and at the same time make suggestions to departments about caring for and storing their valuables. Ms. Norris learned how to use FileMaker software to set up a database in which to record not only basic information about each object -- its dimensions, its age, and so forth -- but also details such as who gave the object to the university and whether it was in need of conservation. She learned how to use a digital camera and photo-editing software so she could include images of each object in the database.

Her approach has been simple: She started with a list of Harvard buildings and got in touch with superintendents and departmental offices to set up visits, at the same time asking for the names of anyone connected to the building who might have a long memory. Many people took her right to interesting objects, she says. "But some people said, 'We don't have anything,'" she says. "We said, 'Do you mind if we look around?'" She has had a part-time assistant, Nina Cohen, whose knowledge of American furniture and decorative arts has been a big help. As Ms. Norris had expected, the database has more tables and chairs than anything else. She says it has sometimes been difficult, especially with Victorian items but also with more modern pieces, to draw the line between pieces that should be included in the database and furniture that was not so noteworthy.

But Ms. Norris has also turned up some surprises. A basement held a large wooden plaque listing donors to an 1842 library fund. A watercolor by the French painter Raoul Dufy was hanging almost unnoticed on a wall. She also found traces of missing objects, like a plaque belonging to a vanished painting. "I send reports to departments to tell them what they have," Ms. Norris says, "and sometimes I urge that things be locked up or not hung over radiators." At one point she was able to prevent a well-meaning custodian from touching up a valuable outdoor sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly with Rust-Oleum. On occasion she has even recommended that departments sell things they didn't want. Some such objects were worth significant amounts, she says, but others she suggested selling at yard sales.

As she went from building to building, she found herself broadening the project's boundaries. "I began to realize there was other stuff we should include -- architectural elements, windows, memorial plaques, and historical ephemera." Among the ephemera was the Harvard College pump handle, which she found on a mantel in the offices of the university magazine, with a tiny plate attached saying that it had been "Rescued in 1905 by B. Meredith Langstaff '08." She toured not only buildings in Cambridge but also facilities Harvard owns elsewhere, including the Harvard Forest, in Petersham, Mass., and a house in Kittery Point, Me., that belonged to the writer William Dean Howells.

"As often as not, what I'm finding are things with wonderful stories," says Ms. Norris. She is particularly fond of a drawing by Julius Klein, who earned a Ph.D. in history at Harvard in 1915. The drawing shows Harvard history professors as they would look if stitched into the Bayeux Tapestry. A retiree's tip led to a film canister in a closet in the comparative-literature department -- and to the only known film footage of Pierre-Auguste Renoir at work in his studio, with his dealer and a longtime model on hand. Another tip revealed that what Ms. Norris calls a "bunged up" desk in the John F. Kennedy School of Government had once belonged to the CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow. It was brought to Cambridge by Marvin Kalb, the longtime CBS reporter, who is now on the Kennedy School faculty.

After three years of work, Ms. Norris not only knows how many of Walter Gropius's bow ties Harvard has (six), but also where they are (the Graduate School of Design) and how Harvard got them (Gropius's widow gave them to the architect Chester Nagel, who had studied with her husband at Harvard, and Mr. Nagel gave them to the design school). She can tell you the condition of the football with which Harvard beat Oregon 7-6 in the 1920 Rose Bowl (good), where on the campus to find a trapdoor leading to a secret room that was allegedly once part of the underground railroad (Warren House), and who manufactured a valuable Mission-style bookcase that one department uses to store paper for its photocopier (Gustav Stickley).

But she's also extremely cautious with the information she has collected, because the last thing she wants is to be responsible, however inadvertently, for the theft of something valuable. She goes off the record as often as a White House official, and even then she's vague about many details. One of the big decisions Harvard administrators will need to make soon, she says, is how to handle the information she has collected. She knows people would be interested in many of the objects -- like the snuffbox in which the first sample of smallpox vaccine was sent to America, in 1800, or the wax cylinders on which a lecture by the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted are recorded -- but the safety of the objects and the university's need to go about its business come first.

Ms. Norris says she hopes Harvard will commit itself to the database over the long term -- by establishing procedures for adding items in the future, for checking up on objects already included, and for learning more about items that Ms. Norris marked as being worth further study. "We don't have time for much research," she says of her first pass through Harvard's buildings. "We're just doing a survey."

She's also hoping other colleges and universities will follow Harvard's lead and start inventories of their own. "This should be done everywhere," she says. "Harvard is so fragmented -- if Harvard can do it, anyone can."

Copyright © 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published January 23, 2004.