Mission-centric Acquisitions, or Why is There a Framed Brassiere Next to my Desk?

Seriously though, did you?

Did you think I was kidding?

That is, in point of fact, a framed brassiere. Originally worn by a soprano in the Chicago Opera in 1918 during a production of The Barber of Seville, it is by no means the most unusual item at the Museum of Performance & Design.

In the Anna Halprin collection, the collection through which I am currently hacking, there are 10 foot long illustrated choreographic scores, hand-drawn and detailing intricate movements for each dance. There are plastic banners from German arts festivals and negatives documenting her work being performed simultaneously in 10 different cities around the globe.  The current finding aid for Halprin is an inch and a half thick, and growing with each shipment of new materials from the artist herself. I applied for the fellowship because I wanted a crack at processing multi-media collections with difficult-to-classify items. It would appear I got my wish and then some. But I digress.

I bring up the framed bra not only for entertainment value (seriously though, how great is that?), but also to talk about how special collections decide what to keep and what goes.

I got to sit in on the museum’s latest staff meeting, where the primary topic of discussion was the approval of the rewritten and revised mission statement for the institution. I feel like this is a process that’s often overlooked or rushed-through to get to the “fun stuff,” acquisition of new collections, marketing, etc. But listening to the discussion and later reading the mission statement and core values document, it struck me how important having a clearly described mission is for a collecting institution.

The Museum of Performance & Design’s current mission statement is as follows:

“We are an integrated library and museum dedicated to preserving and
promoting all aspects of the performing arts in the Bay Area through
archival, collecting and interpretive practices that are locally connected
and broadly relevant. By offering dynamic opportunities for exploration,
discovery, and learning we aspire to foster engagement, participation
and innovation in the performing arts today.”

Now just what does that have to do with the aforementioned bra? Well, take into account the bra’s history. It’s from an operatic production, which gives it performing arts “street cred”, but where is the Bay Area connection? Are we using it effectively to promote broader community engagement in the arts? Should this bra be de-accessioned and returned to the Chicagoland area, where it may have more relevance? Can you believe I have structured an entire blog entry around a 104 year old piece of lingerie?

These are the kind of questions a good mission statement prompts for the institution. If the Museum of Performance & Design’s mission is to promote local performing arts engagement, then that also informs where collections are sourced. For example, Anna Halprin and her workshops may have started locally, but have expanded over decades across the country and the globe. Her collection includes films of her dances being performed not only in San Francisco, but Washington, DC and Germany as well. These connections help foster both local knowledge (props to the Bay Area for producing this choreographer) as well as discovering links to the larger arts scene.

At the end of the day, archives are preservers of public memory, which can be a pretty huge and intimidating title. The only response to a responsibility like that is to define which part of the massive amount of the whole of human history you’re going to preserve, or more pointedly to define your mission. That one statement will inform not only your collection management policy, but also your exhibits, your outreach programs, and your relationships with other libraries, archives, museums, and artistic bodies both locally and in the field at large. Mission statements are the beating heart of any cultural institution, archives included. In a time when more and more corners are being cut in the name of funding or time management, I’m thrilled to be working with an institution that understands the importance of defining a clear and comprehensive mission.

Reading that back makes it sound like I’ve got a bit of a crush on the Museum of Performance & Design. Well, that’s to be expected. I have seen its underwear, after all.


1 Comment

Filed under Archives, Museums

One response to “Mission-centric Acquisitions, or Why is There a Framed Brassiere Next to my Desk?

  1. Hi Penny (is that what you go by?) – I love this post! It’s amazing what you find in an archive – every collection has several random, weird, and wonderful items that stick out like this brassiere. Good luck with archiving – Kat Bell, 2011 DHC Fellow

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