Paper + Presentation: Place-things

[PDF + References]


“Permanence is relative”

Place-things: Cataloging the ephemeral: Architecture

“Ephemeral” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “lasting a short time,” and ephemeral works of art can be defined as “temporary or subject to change, alteration, removal and whose meaning is often tied to sites” (A. Porvo, personal communication, February 27, 2014). Architecture and built works are ephemeral because they exist in a specific place and time – at Broadway and Liberty Street in Manhattan, completed in 1908, and demolished in 1968. The Singer Building existed within these parameters, but no longer exists, as One Liberty Plaza (completed 1973) occupies the space in 2014. The question is, how would the Singer Building or One Liberty Plaza be cataloged? Neither work can exist in a collection and be cataloged “object in hand” via the usual practice, as they are tied to the specific place and time they exist in.

Surrogates, referred to by the Visual Resources Association in their guide to VRA Core 4.0 (2007) as “images” are “a visual representation of a work in either whole or part. The representation serves to provide access to the work when the work itself cannot be experienced firsthand.” Photographs are common surrogates for architecture and built works, as they can accurately represent the appearance of a building. However, the form of the surrogate cannot be ignored in cataloging. A photograph as a surrogate for a building is also a work of art in itself. The photograph has unique attributes such as a creator, a condition, and a provenance that are necessary to create a full record of the object. The attributes of the building, its creator, its condition, and its provenance are represented by the photograph and exist alongside the photograph’s own attributes.

How is the surrogate specifically described in a catalog record to provide access and accurately represent the attributes of the surrogate and the work? Catalogers and information professionals use data content and data value standards in most cases to assure “a high rate of descriptive consistency on the part of catalogers, [and] a high rate of retrieval on the part of end-users” (VRA 2007). In the case of architecture and buildings, data value standards often fall short. Linda Cuccurullo (2006) notes the confusion in using the Library of Congress Subject Headings and Name Authority to describe buildings: “[they] can be established either the Library of Congress Name or Subject Authority File, depending on whether they have a corporate identity (i.e., whether they are capable of authorship)” but what if they are “cataloging a resource about the building under its earlier name” or “a building may have a well-established name that differs from the name of the corporate body.” For instance, the Equitable Life Building, also called the Equitable Life Assurance Building, was built in 1870 for the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, was destroyed by fire in 1912, and on the same site in 1915 was built the Equitable Building. Along the way the name of the company became the Equitable Life Insurance Company, which today is AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company. LCSH lists Equitable Building (New York, N.Y.) and LCNA lists Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, Equitable Life Insurance Company, and AXA Insurance (Firm). The controlled vocabularies do not produce an accurate picture of the history of the building(s). The 1870-1912 Equitable Life [Assurance] Building would be completely left out of any record using these controlled vocabularies. The merger of AXA and Equitable Life Insurance would also not be accurately represented as the two firms only appear separately.

The Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA) noted the limitations of using the Library of Congress headings in a study done in the 1980’s. They suggested several changes or expansions to the vocabularies: “1) abandon the distinction between movable and permanently located works in establishing the entry, 2) make a subject heading for the artist, when known, for all art works, including monuments and buildings, 3) use a subdivision, such as [-Individual works] between the name of the artist and the name of the art work, if used, and 4) provide for a multi-faceted approach through multiple subject headings rather than see also references” (1980). Current records for movable art works were headed [Artist. Name of work], while permanently located works did not have a heading for artist. Recognizing the ephemeral nature of architecture was the first step: “That the London Bridge is now in Arizona confirms that ‘permanence’ is relative” (1980). Attributing the work to an artist or creator was then a logical second step, since it was already included for movable works. The suggestion to use multiple subject headings has been put into practice; with the advent of computerized cataloging and no longer having the need to fit all information on a card, multiple lines, each providing an access point through a different subject heading, have been adopted. The third suggestion, of adding a subdivision to the heading, though, was a placeholder. The better suggestion from the study was to create headings for the names of built works, in essence to create a LCSH for built works.

In 2011, the Getty introduced the Cultural Objects Name Authority, or CONA. CONA provides standardized “titles, current location, and other core information for cultural works” as well as assigns each a “unique identifier number” (Harpring 2013). Entries in CONA are compliant with CDWA (Categories for the Description of Works of Art) and CCO (Cataloging Cultural Objects) data content standards. CONA is the LCNA for built and movable works, including “architecture and movable works such as paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, manuscripts, photographs, ceramics, textiles, furniture, and archaeological artifacts” (Harpring 2013). Other Getty vocabularies, especially the AAT (Art and Architecture Thesaurus) provide additional headings. Using CONA and AAT to describe a building could satisfy some of the problems ARLIS/NA identified: a specific subject heading for the work itself from CONA and subdivisions for attributes of the work from AAT. CONA encompasses more information in a record than LCNA or LCSH, including creation date (which also notes if the building is still standing), creator, classification, work type, locations, and materials. Within each field, it allows for multiplicity, for instance the London Bridge would have both its original location in England and its current location in Arizona listed. The fields are populated by Getty controlled vocabularies. Adding a CONA heading to an institution’s record would link the record to more complete information on the object. The only drawback with using CONA is the project is still in its pilot stage.

Beyond suggesting changes and creating standards, what actual attempts have been made to catalog ephemeral architecture in institutions that catalog cultural works? The J. Clarence Davies Scrapbook Collection at the Museum of the City of New York is one example of surrogate images of buildings being cataloged by attributes of the building and of the images. Currently I am working to catalog this collection at the item-level, creating records for each scrapbook page. On each scrapbook page there may be one to eight images of the same block or building. J. Clarence Davies (1868-1934) was a real estate developer who collected images of New York spanning the 17th to 20th centuries of all five boroughs. He meticulously noted each avenue and cross street, often featuring several images or even pages of the same building. What he produced was a record of New York City’s architecture, and in cataloging it, I describe both the building as the subject of the image, Davies as the creator of the scrapbooks, and attributes of the image itself. We use AAT vocabulary to describe what the image is: a gelatin silver print or a lithograph and what it is mounted on: paper (fiber product). We also use LCSH and LCNA predominantly in adding keywords. In each record I include J. Clarence Davies and Real estate business to describe the scrapbook the page is a part of. I also use terms like Churches or Carriages and coaches to describe what appears in the image. Because the building was what Davies wanted to capture, I also describe the building with a heading from LCSH or LCNA if available, including AAT headings for Styles and Periods, Materials, or Objects. If I can find information on the architect of the building, and he as an individual or corporate body exists in the LCNA, I would add that as well. Unfortunately we do not use CONA, and if we did, CONA would most likely not contain headings for the buildings in the images, as CONA is still limited in its entries. I describe each component as work with a creator, material, and subject: the object, the image, and the subject of the image, and in this way provide the most complete and accurate record.

To conclude, architecture provides a unique challenge to catalogers, because, as Pennec (2013) points out, “architecture exhibitions are mostly exhibitions of representation of architecture rather than architecture itself.” Buildings exist “in-situ”: in the specific place and time where they are built, while images or surrogates of the building exist in an institution’s collection (Pennec 2013). The challenge is to accurately describe the surrogate and the building, both as works with their own attributes. ARLIS/NA notes the shortcomings of using LCSH and LCNA to describe works of art and suggested changes in the 1980’s to standard practice. In 2011, the Getty launched CONA, the Cultural Objects Name Authority, combining the Getty controlled vocabularies with CDWA and CCO, to create authority records describing built and movable cultural works. Buildings and built works are included in CONA, although the project is still in its infancy, and catalogers are still using creative ways, in the vein of ARLIS/NA’s suggestions, to use LC authorities and controlled vocabularies to create complete records. Individuals who captured images of disappearing architecture, such as J. Clarence Davies and his scrapbook collection donated to the Museum of the City of New York, are a prime example of cataloging objects, images, and subjects of images all as works to fully describe the surrogate and the building itself.