“No Gloves!”: Provenance Research and Museum’s Archives

by Beate Schreiber

Precious objects should be handled with gloves, apparently white gloves are the most comfortable. This is public knowledge, and when provenance research hits the news cycle, producers demand that we wear gloves even when handling archival materials such as files, card indexes, ledgers and inventories. Some have even asked me to wear gloves when handling our own books. This sloppy opinion piece is not about dress codes in museums and archives, but about perspectives, opportunities, and quality of research. Since this doesn’t just concern a national audience, I am writing it in English.

No one needs to wear gloves when handling papers. Photos and slides are a different story. When it comes to museum archives we need clean hands – and “business as usual”: We don’t need gloves, we need access to archives, information, and finding aids. If I were an AI-driven system, I would say we need metadata.

I have spent the last few years diving into the museum’s archives, figuring out how to find more information about exhibitions, loans, correspondence about objects and collectors. Recently, my work has focused on Middle and Far Eastern and East Asian objects. We began our research project on non-European objects from the collection of Herbert M. Gutmann (1879–1942) in February 2023, and tried to find curatorial records of exhibitions of East Asian objects or Islamic art from the early 20th century. We already knew that Herbert M. Gutmann lent several objects to exhibitions – on Chinese Art – in Berlin in 1929 and – on Persian Art – in London in 1931. For our research on the objects in the Gutmann collection more information about these exhibitions is crucial.

Many museums were involved in the organization of these exhibitions. Their archives should provide more information. That was the premise and the scope of our survey. Our findings from the archival survey on the non-European objects in the Herbert M. Gutmann collection will be published online in the coming weeks, due to the collection’s scope the forthcoming article will focus on Islamic and East Asian art.

Akademie der Künste, Ausstellung chinesischer Kunst, Januar 1929, Bild 183-1987-0914-515. (Federal Archives, Berlin)
Akademie der Künste, Ausstellung chinesischer Kunst, Januar 1929, Bild 183-1987-0914-515. (Federal Archives, Berlin)

Here are some results of our sub-surveys and observations: It was almost impossible to find information online concerning the scope and content of the archives of museums other than the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten, the Gemeentemuseum of The Hague, the Victoria & Albert Museum London, the Bodleian Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, the Smithsonian, the Corning Museum and the Rijksmuseum (at the Noord Hollands Archief, with some files digitalized online).

the reading room under construction. Wood engraving by J. Brown after C. W. Sheeres, 1855. (The British Museum)
the reading room under construction. Wood engraving by J. Brown after C. W. Sheeres, 1855. (The British Museum)

I was surprised that most of the museums that would be relevant for our survey still don’t provide any information online. Other museums (which were not relevant for this research project) have archives and information: most of the Austrian museums in the respective State Archives, the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, the Stadtmuseum Berlin, the Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin and the Deutsches Museum Munich provide information online. This list is not exhaustive.

Sometimes papers end up in archives that have nothing to do with the person or institution, because someone gave them the archival material. The former online database for German “Nachlässe” (Personal Archives) is now hosted by Kalliope.1 But this is a community for German-speaking countries, not an international repository. If you search for a topic and not a person, you will not get any reliable results. What does this mean for due diligence? How to cite non-inventoried material, how to evaluate and analyze information that comes up by chance or by talking to colleagues (I have nothing against talking to colleagues, but you cannot base your research on it, it’s not oral history). I always consider information about archives to be crucial, and there is a lot of research and published studies on records of the administration, ministries, other agencies in national or state archives. In Europe, museums are mostly publicly funded institutions, so granting access to their archives should be an obligation.

The Association of German Museums states in its guidelines that museums should employ an information specialist (Dokumentar) as the keeper of an archive but doesn’t give specifics about standards for museum archives. ICOM states on documentation services: “These services should include a research area where visitors can consult paper records and files, together with manual or online search facilities giving access to catalogue records, images, contextual information and other resources.”2

In my opinion, Museum’s archives must be open to external research so that the information we are looking for is properly searchable and therefore findable. The term is finding aids, not searching aids! This means, that the researcher can search methodically and systematically, so one needs finding aids, file descriptions, file numbers and a reference system. The researcher needs a first information that the museum has an archive and what’s in it or what isn’t. Historical information about the staff, the curators, and the collection of the museum can also be considered crucial to such an undertaking.

We need professionally managed museum archives, with properly housed archival records (acid-free packing material etc., no gloves!), access to image collections, neat finding aids, and archivists who can help us with our research. This will not happen without call for support. It would be helpful to create a crowd sourced special inventory on museum’s archives. Who is willing to work on this?


2 ICOM: Statement of principles of museum documentation, CIDOC Documentation Standards Working Group, 6 June 2012 Version 6.2, https://cidoc.mini.icom.museum/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2020/03/principles6_2.pdf.


Beate Schreiber ist Historikerin bei Facts & Files Historisches Forschungsinstitut Berlin. Themen ihrer Arbeit sind “Arisierungen”, Provenienzforschung zu Kunst- und Kulturgütern und Restitution und Entschädigung nach 1945. //

Beate Schreiber is an historian at Facts & Files Historical Research Institute Berlin. Her work focuses on “Aryanization”, provenance research on art and cultural assets and restitution and compensation after 1945.



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
retour (2024, 10. April). “No Gloves!”: Provenance Research and Museum’s Archives. RETOUR. Abgerufen am 25. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/w6xo

Eine Antwort auf „“No Gloves!”: Provenance Research and Museum’s Archives“

  1. Hello,
    I totally agree with your arguments for better access to archives and unnecessary glove requirements for professional researchers. I would like to say that the “theatre” of putting on white gloves to handle museum objects helps to encourage visitors, particularly children, to treat objects with respect. Yes, it’s very lazy film-making to show documents are precious by making you wear gloves, but it might encourage people to take more care with archives. I’ve seen important documents with stains from spilt coffee etc.!! I’m sure you have seen similar things too.
    If the public understand the importance of archives, then maybe museum directors might release more money to create the finding aids we need.
    Also, in case it’s useful, the Burrell Collection in Glasgow has an online provenance website for Chinese objects: https://carp.arts.gla.ac.uk/ which was done by Glasgow University several years ago.

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