Reader, I've been mulling the topic I'm going to address for awhile but have found new motivation just today. I've spent the past year and a half as interim director for the special collections and archives unit of my library, which in many ways has expanded my skills as a librarian. I'm happy to have had this chance to get to know a collection in depth, mostly for the exposure to the amount of art found in archives (illustrations, paintings, photographs....photographs) but have also come to realize just how much information a. never makes it into an archive b. languishes once it does. More to follow at a later date on point b., but today is all about point a., information that never makes it into an archive.
Being the Interim Director has had the perk of lots of lovely catalogs crossing my desk. The antiquarian book world knows its audience--it knows we want color photos and lavish pictures (similar rant may ensue about the art history in auction catalogs, but stay focused Rebecca) and detailed descriptions about provenance, condition, and other juicy book details. Dealers in antiquarian books and ephemera are also purveyors of letters, posters, postcards, photos, maps, menus...and it is a genteel free for all of what gets sold and where it goes.
To the point: Swann Galleries has listed for an auction an incredibly rare and previously unknown photo of Harriet Tubman, one of the most significant women in American history. You can see it here along with another photo that is for sale:
What's particularly ugly about this is that it is being auctioned. Auctioned. Auction. The image of Harriet Tubman is something that not only should not be sold, but to auction it?
Now come on. Seller, whoever you are, and Swann Galleries, you cannot tell me you are blind to the deep inherent wrongness of auctioning a photo of Harriet Tubman. This is an appalling level of insensitivity if not an ugly act of racism and potential erasure of history. To sell this photo is bad enough, to auction it is reprehensible.
The Harriet Tubman home is currently fundraising to have a cash reserve to bid on the photo that should rightly be in the Tubman home already. For those of you who have done fundraising for cash strapped non-profits, you can imagine the incredible stress this puts on the board and staff. Just think what else they could do with that 25,000? But raise it they will and I'm going to help. Please join me.
1. Ask Swann Galleries to ask the person who has consigned this item with them to consider donating it to the Harriet Tubman Home.
2. Ask Swann Galleries their policies on auctioning vital pieces of American history that should transcend ownership by an individual.
3. Give, give, give. Even if there is a change of heart by the owner/auctioneer, I'm sure the Tubman Home could use some additional funds.
4. Signal boost, retweet, write your own post, tell people you know. Copy in historical societies, filmmakers, historians, writers, photographers, archivists, librarians, your family members.
I have often been surprised when I leaf through those gorgeous catalogs from antiquarian dealers at the things I think "why isn't that in a museum?" I know, many museums are busting at the seams right now and archivists are wise to not accept collections that they don't have room for or money to process. But this is one photograph, one rare precious photograph, that so clearly deserves to be in its rightful home.