Museum curators receive plenty of calls from people willing to sell art. Most don't result in deals, but a parcel of old photographs that came to the attention of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art last year broke the trend.
"We told the owner to bring them in, and it turned out to be this group of photographs from the Memphis World," says Marina Pacini, chief curator of the Brooks. "We decided we had to have them."
The World — a member of the Scott Syndicate of African-American newspapers — published downtown from 1931 to 1973.
The Brooks bought 222 World photographs and plans to host an exhibit of the pictures and the stories behind them. First, however, they have some work to do.
The photographs were sold piecemeal at an estate sale without any identifying information. Pacini and David McCarthy, professor of art history at Rhodes College, seized the problem as an opportunity to create a community project combining the images with their sometimes obscure historical circumstances.
"These connect us with a moment in Memphis history that we all need to know about," says McCarthy, whose students have joined the excavation for information about the photographs. "We're hoping we can find people in the photographs and do oral histories with them."
Most of the pictures in the Brooks collection depict events between 1949 and 1964, such as the 1953 Dairy Council Luncheon and the 1951 opening of the W.C. Handy Theatre — everyday activities excluded from the typical narrative of Memphis history.
McCarthy will lead a seminar this fall with students researching and writing entries on each of the images.
"The photographs go against what you think of as typical for Memphis in that time period," says Amber James, a Rhodes student who has researched the photograph (shown above) of a Universal Life Insurance transaction as part of a larger project on black-owned businesses in Memphis.
McCarthy, Pacini, and students read through microfilm copies of the World at the Central Library. They have found about 160 of the photos in the Brooks collection in the paper and noted the photo captions and photographer credits as they originally ran.
Pacini and McCarthy also assembled an advisory committee to help identify the photographs and set up a computer kiosk in the Brooks' lobby that displays each photograph in the collection. People are encouraged to view the kiosk and help identify subjects of the pictures. "We're trying to find anyone and everyone who can help us with this," McCarthy says.
They would likewise welcome the appearance of other World photographs. The estate sale where the Brooks collection was acquired sold other lots of World pictures separately. "We don't know what happened to the rest," McCarthy says.
The exhibit will be on display at the Brooks in the fall of 2008.