On May 20th, 2015, the Boston Public Library reported that it was missing two of its most valuable pieces: an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, and a Rembrandt etching. If you have been keeping up with the story, then you know that as of today (June 4, 2015), both artworks were found in the library’s archives, 80 feet from where they were supposed to be filed.
Originally, I had planned on writing a longer piece, trying to explain why it was possible for these two very valuable pieces to be missing within the collection. Since I’ve only started to get my feet wet in the museum world, though, I have no real expertise on the matter, so I’ll hold back – for the most part. I had planned to defend the Boston Public Library because I assumed the comments on articles written by the Boston Globe and WBUR would have many people up in arms about “how could the BPL lose objects?!”. While I didn’t comb through every article’s comments with a fine-toothed comb, the comments that I did read were not as harsh as I expected. In fact, they were much more critical of the way Mayor Walsh handled the situation than anything else (a thing I will stay silent on).
What happened at the Boston Public Library is not good. It sucks. (It also sucks that President Amy Ryan is still leaving, resigning only a day before the artworks were found.) But it’s also a very real problem in most cultural heritage organizations. Organizations that have existed for over 100 years have gone through reorg after reorg, and have had to constantly keep up with ever-changing standards and ways of doing things in order to stay on top of ever-expanding collections. This is not an easy feat when your entire sector is drastically underfunded. It means relying on underpaid, overworked staff. It means relying on unpaid interns. It means relying on volunteers. The public is outraged when situations arise like the one at the BPL, expecting us to have all of our objects organized and filed to perfection. The truth is, they aren’t. With tens of thousands of objects, how could they be?
And so I say this, to you, to anyone who will listen: Cultural heritage organizations need better funding and public support. How can you help make that happen? Email your Senators. Email your Congressmen and Congresswomen. Email your mayors, your governors – heck, email President Obama. Let them know you support the arts and culture. Let them know you want to increase funding for these institutions, so situations like this will become less of an occurrence in the future. With better public support, more organizations can embark on digitization and inventory projects, and can build a foundation to help them survive the next 100 years.
Click HERE to access the American Alliance of Museums’ Take Action page, to email your legislators about issues surrounding the cultural heritage sector.