The photographs came to the University from an art history alumna,
Jessica Porter, in 2001. Her late father had found them abandoned in
Maryland, McGee said, and they arrived at UD with little or no
explanation. A variety of photograph types were in the box, including
tintypes, albumen prints, matte collodion prints, silver gelatin
printing-out prints (POP), silver gelatin developing-out prints (DOP)
and one halftone.
Almost half of them were made in Baltimore, the others in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and Washington, D.C.
McGee, a curator with special expertise in African-American art, said
the photographs had been evaluated when they reached the University.
They were assigned the number “9999.0910,” a category that indicates a
preliminary status as objects of educational quality or, in some cases,
disposable if they cannot be stabilized or salvaged.
When she arrived at UD in 2008 as curator of African-American art for
University Museums, she started to explore everything in the
“I was trying to get a better grasp of the totality of the collection
that represents African-American culture,” she said. “Is there anything
that is not cataloged yet — anything we may have overlooked? Sure
enough, there was a box of ‘moldy photographs.’ The mold was no longer
active, but the photographs clearly needed conservation … and were in
various stages of deterioration.”
They also raised far more questions than they could possibly
answer — a challenge for curators and those who capture and catalog the
metadata that explain each photograph and its context.
What should be done with these photographs? Should they be digitized,
which — in effect — creates another collection? How could they be made
accessible to others? How do you catalog the unknown? How do you
describe the race of a person? Should you? Why?
McGee built a course around this box of photographs and the questions
they represented — “Curating Hidden Collections and the Black Archive,”
an interdisciplinary seminar that included 11 students drawn from
history and museum studies, art history, the Winterthur Program in
American Material Culture and Africana studies.
The work started with students trying to learn as much as possible
about each item and also trying to describe the photographs and whatever
they learned about them in accurate terms.
Those conventions and the words and details included in such data are
under great scrutiny in this field — in a transformative period,
“We looked at the cataloging and metadata schema used by varied
institutions that had similar collections of photographs of unidentified
people, including the Library Company in Philadelphia, the Smithsonian
National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Library
of Congress,” McGee said. “And the students elected to diverge from
some of the standard modes of visual description.”
For example, many photograph data points have historically described a
person’s race only if they are not white. Whiteness has not typically
been described in the title of most photographs cataloged.
The descriptive title is critical, though, because it generates the
citation. It will be the priority text in a catalog and will often
determine what people find when they do digital searches.
“Descriptive titles — bracketed to indicate they came from a
cataloger — can be updated over time to reflect greater knowledge about
the object and sensitivity to the biases they reflect. For example,
19th-century photographs of black women holding white infants,
historically described as ‘nannies,’ are being revised by institutions,”
McGee said. “The difference between ‘nanny’ and ‘unidentified enslaved
person holding their white charge or unidentified child’ is significant.
Transparent cataloging, like that at the Library of Congress, makes
note of the changes in descriptive titles by retaining the older titles
in the full record. When we use digital collections we rarely think
about this level of curation. We simply accept the data provided.”
Students developed a database for the collection, using Artstor, the
enormous digital platform that holds a trove of images from museums
around the world. They filled in appropriate category fields and created
new reports that included conservation notes for the photographs. Those
notes were created by students who worked on the collection during
Prof. Debra Hess Norris’ Winter Session class in the highly regarded
Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation.
“It was especially nice for our students to have the opportunity to
stabilize a collection that had been studied intently by other graduate
students at UD,” said Norris, Unidel Henry Francis du Pont Chair of Fine
Arts. “Many of these portraits were severely water- and mold-damaged
and they required consolidation and cleaning, often under magnification.
“The conservation treatment of the Baltimore Collection was a
wonderful project — connecting teaching with preservation and a powerful
collection — one my students and I will always treasure.”
Searching for clues
Some photographs had the name of a studio stamped on them, offering
clues to the time and place the sitters could have been there. Students
pursued such clues to see if they could find more information.
Dorothy Fisher, a doctoral student in art history, saw the
photographer’s name and address on the back of one of the photographs
she was working with — the faded, barely-there image of a woman in a
white dress on a residential street of Baltimore row houses. The front
steps of the house were white.
“Even with a magnifying glass, you can’t see the woman’s face,”
Fisher said. “You can see part of a tree, part of a street lamp. But you
can clearly see those white steps.
“In my hubris, I was convinced I would find which residential street this was.”
Her quest was frustrated by one stubborn fact of Baltimore history.
“Those row houses with white steps could be anywhere in the city of
Baltimore,” she said. “There is a tradition of white steps in the city.”
As the class worked, they developed a website and used it to share their thoughts about the images they were working with.
Ethan Barnett, a doctoral student in the African American Public
Humanities Initiative, wrote a series of powerful poems in his post
titled “Dear ‘Unidentified’ woman in photo 31.”
Photo 31 is a portrait of an African-American woman and a white boy
on a porch. The woman is seated, holding a teddy bear, and the child is
standing beside her, looking up at her face. In the prologue to his
poetry, Barnett asks about their connection. Are they neighbors?
Related? Is she a caretaker?
Barnett said his poems are a response to “the historical erasure of
blackness within photographs and the distribution of power that
whiteness holds onto mercilessly within the world.”
His poems develop with extraordinary voice, starting with a sort of
polite distance and moving urgently toward familiar tones to deliver a
litany of awful news from the 21st century, where the debate apparently
still rages over whether #BlackLivesMatter.
Legacies and histories
Of course, there are debates over whether any of this matters. Every
family has photographs of people they can hardly identify anymore,
images that may have limited value even to those who are attached to
them in some kinship way.
But these point to something else, McGee said.
“What the Baltimore Collection represents to me is that we
‘privilege’ objects that are in great condition that have legacies and
histories that can be recorded,” she said. “And those are things that
have provided dominant resource material for that which we can study.
“The Baltimore Collection gives us something you don’t often find
visible in public collections — objects and histories that have not been
extensively researched. Its digitization and visibility contribute to a
larger narrative related to ‘hidden’ collections and what they have to
In other words, there are many holes in our history and many of those
holes were deliberately gouged. As diversity increases — in thought,
identity and experience — the gaps and the sense that something precious
has been lost or hidden become more evident. Curators can address that
in significant ways and students at UD have added a sense of urgency to
In the Baltimore Collection, lives are captured at a moment in time,
within a specific context, carrying a unique reality. They are now
preserved for our education and enrichment, part of the UD Library’s
Special Collections and housed in an acid-free box marked “The Baltimore
Photographic Portrait Collection: Preserved.”
Article by Beth Miller; photo by Doug Baker; photo illustration by Dave Barczak
Published Feb. 25, 2020