The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Archives

In 1929, Lillie Bliss, Mary Sullivan, Abby Rockefeller, and the Board of Trustees founded the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).  Each of the three women used their own resources and private collections to start a niche museum to house modern art, in opposition to traditional museums of the time, which preferred classical pieces of art.  The museum opened to the public in 1939, and still resides in the same building that started it all in Midtown Manhattan, New York.


It wasn’t until 1989 that the Board of Trustees established the archives for the museum in order “to preserve and make accessible the Museum’s historical records to Museum staff, outside scholars, researchers, and to create and direct the Museum’s Records Management Program.”  Their archival collections consists of a variety of formats such as sound records, microfilm, videotapes, manuscripts, photographs, minutes and reports.  The collection specifically includes records relevant to the Museum’s history, personal papers of curators, directors, Trustees and former staff when relevant to Museum interests or history, oral histories, twentieth-century primary resource material, including papers, manuscripts, and photographs, and a photographic archive comprised of tens of thousands of images.

photo courtesy of Timothy Hursley
Exterior of the Museum of Modern Art
photo courtesy of Timothy Hursley

Archival collections are selected if they offer art historical or sociopolitical value, research potential, or legal importance.  These collections can be collected through a variety of means such as Museum activities, personnel documents, manuscripts relating to the art collection, and administrative paperwork.  The MoMA Archive’s website clearly states what kinds of materials are retained by the archives, which allows researchers to know what material is available and whether they can access it.  Their internal collections policy is a little vague in what materials will be selected, but it is clear that the mission to collect, preserve, and make accessible Museum records of value is emphasized.  Restrictions are imposed on sensitive documents relating to Trustee activities, current transactions, and personnel matters to protect privacy rights and the interests of the Museum.

MoMA Number:141.1957 Photo courtesy of MoMA
Edgar Degas, “At the Milliner’s”
MoMA Number:141.1957
Photo courtesy of MoMA

So, how do you go about finding stuff in their archives?  What about using it?   How do I do it!?  There are two locations that house MoMA’s archival material.  The Manhattan location is open Wednesday through Friday 1:00-5:00 p.m.  The Queens location is open Monday 11:00 a.m -5:00 p.m.  Appointments are required, so if you plan to go make sure to prepare in advance.  It is recommended that basic research on a topic is completed prior to visiting the MoMA’s Archives.  There is a database (called DADABASE) where researchers can browse or search for specific materials as well as a page that lists collections, which links to the finding aids of specific collections.  Researchers will need to bring a photo ID (driver’s license, student ID, or Institutional ID only) to use for access to the Archives.  A majority of the collections are only available on-site, but a few are available for interlibrary loan through the Archives of American Art.  Otherwise, if you were looking to research at MoMA, you would have to make a trip to New York.

Jackson Pollock, "White Light MoMA Number:337.1967 © 2015 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Jackson Pollock, “White Light
MoMA Number:337.1967
© 2015 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Museum of Modern Art employs a full-time Museum Archivist, an Associate Archivist, an Associate Archivist, a Records Manager, and a part-time assistant.  Periodically, if they receive grant funding, they hire other employees and interns.  If you are looking to be a part of MoMA, they have a jobs page, and an interns page for more information.  They also have volunteer opportunities!

I think one of the coolest things about this archives is the collection of oral histories.  The finding aid lists the person interviewed, the year of the interview, and offers transcripts and video clips (view-able online!).  Check out some of the videos here!


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