Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, CT
House museums have an odd relationship with time. This summer, I had the opportunity to work as an assistant archivist for Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Conn. The project of Theodate Pope, one of the earliest licensed female architects in the United States, Hill-Stead is a national historic landmark and boasts a collection of paintings by Monet, Degas, Whistler, Manet and Cassatt. Inside the home, time is frozen in 1946—the year the last tenant at Hill-Stead died. The furniture, tableware, wallpaper and carpeting have all been preserved to look exactly as they did 80 years ago. But as one moves through the museum, it becomes clear that Hill-Stead is far from dormant. Accession numbers, wall text and individualized lighting accompany each artwork—the labor of decades of curators, archivists and conservators. Hill-Stead has become far more than an emblem of early 20th-century living. It is a living document of generations of museum staff and their varying goals for the institution. This summer, I designed a metadata schematic for Hill-Stead’s object files and learned firsthand what it’s like to navigate the unique temporal relationship museum staff hold with their institution.
In 2022, Hill-Stead celebrated its 75th anniversary. To commemorate the event, the museum sought to take the bulk of its physical collection online, adapting a decades-old server of unfinished spreadsheets, missing metadata and years of unfiled research—all consequences of clashing archival agendas absent a standard for proper metadata entry—for a public-facing, browsable database. To accomplish this, I wrote new digital accessions for Hill-Stead’s physical archive of objects and translated a century of handwritten object files to one centralized digital finding aid. This project was not without its challenges. Unlike a handwritten object file, a digital one must subscribe to a set number of data fields. Bringing Hill-Stead’s collection online involved mapping past generations of curators’ object descriptions to a modernized information architecture on which the archival computer program operated.
To adapt an object’s metadata from a ledger to a computer screen, I brought each object through a series of translations; in an online archive, an object must be rendered both searchable and browsable. Viewers can browse a database, where the metadata categories for art remain markedly general to help guide the viewer to groups of objects that might interest them. Conversely, viewers may opt to search for an object. In these cases, the visual organization of metadata takes a lower priority to the specificity of search subcategories involved. In both scenarios, how a museum chooses to display its objects’ metadata becomes vital in shaping how the public navigates the collection—a facet of digital archiving I had not anticipated.
I learned a lot from Hill-Stead’s curators and archivists, who each possessed a healthy appreciation for the time, patience and attention that is required to effectively collect, inventory and preserve historical objects in the physical and digital realm. As more museums choose to move a record of their collections entirely online, I know the skills I learned at Hill-Stead will be vital for my future employment at a museum.