Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Interpretive Files: Capturing & Sharing Facts About Our Collection

August 15, 2013, update: This blog post was changed recently to reflect the fact that Harvey Ellis can no longer be credited as the designer of this desk. In the field of American Arts and Crafts scholarship there has existed an unjustified custom to credit any piece of inlaid furniture produced by the United Crafts Workshop during the 1903-04 period to Harvey Ellis. More recent research by curators and scholars on the subject has concluded that because there is not any definitive proof of Ellis’ sole authorship of designs put into production by the United Crafts Workshop during those years he should not be given credit for being the designer of those objects.

Every artwork in the museum has a story. The education department at the Denver Art Museum collects these stories in interpretive files. From there, educators can use them to create interactive activities, to inform docents and tours, and to help visitors experience different aspects art works. 

As an intern, I researched many of the furniture objects on level six in the North Building using my own observations, DAM’s research files, and any background information I could find. My approach:

1. Pick an Object

I chose this simple yet elegant desk designed by architect Harvey Ellis and built for Gustav Stickley's workshop around 1903, just months before Ellis’ death. Both designers were part of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the United States, which focused on the handiwork and beauty of subtle craftsmanship rather than the mass production of furniture in factories. I wanted to learn more about this piece because it resembled an old desk my mother had in her room when I was growing up. The spaces beneath the drawers and the curve along the bottom give this piece a lightness despite its solid wood build. The curved wood along the bottom of the desk is characteristic of Ellis’s design; he used inlay and curves to “relieve and make interesting what otherwise would have been a too large area of plain, flat surface,” I learned from A Rediscovery: Harvey Ellis: Artist, Architect. The copper handles and the desk's dramatic overhang top can be found in many of Ellis's designs during this time period.

2. Explore DAM’s Files & Databases

DAM works with a database program to keep all the objects organized. I was trained on using the database and now can find anything in our enormous collection of artworks. It helps to locate objects and to find basic information such as the dimensions, year of accession, and condition reports on the object. Sometimes I’ve found fascinating information during this step; for instance, the desk I mentioned earlier has the phrase “Als ik kan” stenciled on the back. Translated it means “to the best of my ability,” and was the official signature of Gustav Stickley's workshop where Ellis worked. I thought this was fascinating because the craftsman signed the piece. I think sometimes today, it's easy to forget that not all furniture is mass produced, and thus unsigned.

3. Research Research Research!

Like a sleuth digs for clues, I’ve had to go deep to find information about older or lesser known objects. Ultimately, I search for a human connection with the piece, such as interesting facts about previous owners, quotes by the artist, how the object came into being, techniques, historical context, etc. I want to know anything and everything about the object. For example, while researching Harvey Ellis, I discovered that the architectural firm he worked for briefly attempted to patent his design plans for creating the first skyscraper! And as if that wasn’t enough, this creative genius was also a very gifted painter. To the left is one of Ellis’s water color paintings titled “The Hour Glass wherein a woman is slumped over a table around the hour glass as a man in a black cloak attempts to comfort her.

Harvey Ellis, The Hour Glass, 1898

Harvey Ellis, The Hour Glass, 1898
The Hour Glass, 1898. A Rediscovery: Harvey Ellis.

4. Get Organized

This last step involves getting all my files, photocopies, and research together into one neat manila folder. Interpretive files need to be easy to read, navigate, and make copies of. At this stage, I like to go and see the object again. I wonder what stories could these objects tell me? After all, many of our objects have been around much longer than me. To just sit, listen, and experience is the ultimate research. 

Image credit: Arts and crafts desk. American, about 1904. Oak, wood inlay, and brass. Manufactured by United Crafts Workshop. Funds from Edgar Smith and 1994 Collectors’ Choice, 1996.1

Cited above: A Rediscovery: Harvey Ellis: Artist, Architect. Rochester: Memorial Art Gallery of University of Rochester, 1973. Print.

Hannah Gilham was an intern in the education department at the Denver Art Museum is summer 2012. She recommended Garry Winogrand: Women are Beautiful as one of her favorite exhibitions on view.