What Curators Love to Hate and Hate to Love

One of the duties of a curator is to make decisions about what material should become part of their collection. A curator shapes the future contents of the collection they steward by creating documents that outline a cohesive focus for acquisitions, but a curator is also responsible for all of the items acquired by their predecessors through gifts, bequests, and purchases, regardless of whether they fit into the current collecting scope. To maintain their collection’s relevance, a curator’s decisions about what to acquire changes over time and reflects, as well as anticipates new scholarship trends. Personal interests of the curator, institutional priorities, and financial considerations also all play a role in these decisions. Curators do have favorite items and those that they have learned to merely tolerate. Art and beauty are truly in the eye of the beholder, including those who serve as the stewards of a collection, as this section will show.

Items marked with an asterisk (*) appear only in the online exhibition.

Imperfect History is supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, Walter J. Miller Trust, Center for American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Jay Robert Stiefel and Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Certificate with a photograph portrait of a young man surrounded by thirteen views showing activities, benefits, and hazards of life with the railroad.

R[ail] R[oad] Record (Terra Haute, IN: J. M. Vickroy Co.,1902). Chromolithograph with inserted gelatin silver print. Gift of David Doret, 2006.

James Vickroy (1847-1913) published more than a dozen certificates following the same formulaic design. A central vignette needing completion by the owner is surrounded by visual tableaux telling the story of the organization or profession being celebrated. A curator could dismiss these certificates as a calculated attempt by a publisher to churn out low-quality popular art prints telling simplified stories to a new audience of working-class consumers, or instead, simply feast one’s eye on the colorful clash of competing images filling the entire sheet and admit these are graphics one hates to love.

Anachronistic scene of well-known white men masons, including George Washington and James Buchanan, standing together, in their masonic aprons inside Assembly Room of Independence Hall.

Christian Inger, Masonic Memorial (Philadelphia: Thomas Phenix, 1860). Printed by Duval, Williams, & Duval. Scrapbook of Portraits. Accessioned 1893.

Quirky and anachronistic, this annotated 1860 lithograph was conceived as a reverential and inspirational memorial group portrait by Mason and copyright holder Thomas Phenix. The absurdist, enigmatic depiction is one destined for a curator to “hate to love.” Prominent living and dead Masons, including George Washington and James Buchanan, jauntily wear their Masonic aprons in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall. The unintentional ludicrousness of the group portrait holds the 21st-century viewer captive, but the promotional pamphlet issued with it describes it as “not improper to mingle the features of some of our living brethren” with those of deceased Masons to memorialize that "no other institution ... can boast that a greater number of the wise and good among mankind … enrolled in its membership ..."

Double-sided photographs of a white woman in pants handing shirt to white man, holding a broom, and seated next to young girl in a parlor. One view has woman also gripping a bicycle.

"Sew On Your Own Buttons, I'm Going for a Ride." (Meadville, Pa.: Keystone View Company, 1896 and 1899). Variant editions. Albumens on stereograph mounts. Gift of Erika Piola, 2000; Purchase 2003; and Purchase with funds for the Visual Culture Program, 2017.

A curator can love and hate items in their collection, especially those with multiple possible readings. That is certainly the case with these late 19th-century comic stereographs satirizing the proto-feminist New Woman. When spotted during cataloging work, a curator's inquisitive nature about the stereographs’ distribution and reception was stirred by the sexist iconography of an independent female and reversed, prescribed gender roles. Dozens of stereographs with variants of a New Woman comic scene were issued between circa 1872 and circa 1910 proving its popularity. Some young women may not have seen a negative portrayal of a New Woman to reject, but one to emulate.


Notice the slight difference in the placement of the child between the “duplicate” pair of stereographs published in 1896 in the magnified view of the image.

Aerial view of zeppelin over Philadelphia near Market Street and the Schuylkill River.

Aero Service Corporation, Von Hindenburg over Philadelphia, August 8, 1936. Reproduction of original film negative. Gift of Virgil Kaufman, 1984.

Started by two World War One pilots upon their return to Philadelphia after the war, Aero Service Corporation took aerial photographs of city business districts, residential estates, industries, and infrastructure throughout the country. In August of 1936, Aero Service photographers captured this jarring image of the swastika-emblazoned Hindenburg zeppelin as it flew for about an hour over Center City Philadelphia. The Library Company’s Aero Service holdings focus on the Greater Delaware Valley and number almost 4,000 mostly glass and film negatives, a “love to hate” format that makes the collection a challenge for curators to store properly and access routinely and for researchers to visually read the images.

View of open freezer filled with rectangular boxes in plastic bags.

*Library Company freezer storing film negatives, 2021.

Since 2005, the film negatives in the Library Company’s collection have been stored in archival boxes and polyethylene bags placed in freezers. Once removed from the freezer, the bags must acclimate for twenty-four hours before being opened to retrieve a negative. Thanks to funding from the Abington Foundation and the Ed Lee and Jean Campe Foundation, a small portion of the Aero Service Collection was digitized in 2008 and 2009 making some images more accessible, but sadly, this rich resource remains underutilized, a source of frustration to the curators.

View of hippo by a river with two baby hippos submerged in the water, head up and face down.

John Pye after W[illiam] M[arshall] Craig, The Hippopotamus of the Cape of Good Hope ([England], ca. 1807). Engraving and etching. Gift of Estate of Nora Magid, 1991.

A variant of this print of a hippopotamus supplemented an 1807 general world history book that characterized the hippo as an animal “seldom seen….[and] imperfectly described by naturalists and travelers.” The illustration showed readers what could not be adequately described with words. Although featured in the Library Company’s 1991 Annual Report as a noteworthy acquisition, this British print and the approximately one dozen other hippo-related prints that came with it were not cataloged into the Library Company’s holdings. Uncataloged material becomes much harder to keep track of, making this print a surrogate for all the “love-to-hate,” under-recorded collection items that pose ongoing management problems for curators.

Etched invitation with detail of a nude woman rising from an ink well.

Invitation to Philadelphia Society of Etchers Dinner, February 2, 1892. Etching. Frederick De Bourg Richards Collection. Gift of Jon Randall Plummer, 2018.

In 2018 and 2020, noted collector Jon Randall Plummer donated a large archive relating to Philadelphia artist and photographer Frederick De Bourg Richards (1822-1903) to the Library Company, making the Library’s Richards collection the largest in any institution. Richards was not a particularly active member of the Philadelphia Society of Etchers, a group founded by Peter Moran (1841-1914) in May 1880. He may not have attended the dinner, described as filled with “wise words, merry tales and hilarious songs” and that lasted until the wee hours of the morning. The Society formally banned women artists from joining, although their works were sometimes exhibited. The image of a modern-looking nude woman rising from an ink bottle on the invitation epitomizes the maleness of the event, and serves as a visual reminder that women were frequently excluded from the formal and informal networks that would have benefitted their careers, making this an image that is easy to “love to hate.”

Drawing of white men in suits tipping hat to man under noose, near cherubs making something smoke and knocking man on head with a block in front of a Federal-style building.

Untitled allegorical cartoon with pixies, cherubs, architecture, and an execution, ca. 1835. Watercolor. Scrapbook of Caricatures. Accessioned 1893.

Studying the content of an image and placing it in an historical context is at the heart of the reference work of a graphic arts curator. Sometimes this study can be confounding as with this “love to hate” watercolor, possibly by artist John Archibald Woodside, Sr. (1781-1852). Previously housed in a scrapbook of caricatures compiled by Library staff in the later 19th century, the watercolor is conjectured as made by Woodside, a sign painter of allegorical scenes, because of a manuscript note on the back of the drawing that includes his last name. A confluence of allegorical and dark visuals, the context and meaning of this “love to hate” piece is still a mystery.