You Only Need One Idea

Today is my first post for The New School Archives blog, but also my last day of working at the New School Archives (I’m a student and I’m graduating up!). In honor of this fact, I thought it would be appropriate to tell the story of how I became interested in archival research.

One of the most common things I hear when I tell people about my time in the archives is “Wow! That place sounds so cool. But I don’t know what I would ever use it for.” My response is, “Well, you only need one idea.”

I say this because you can use the archives for anything you have an idea about. My idea was kind of simple: I wanted to investigate a rumor that I’d heard on a college tour. Our guide, the curator at the New School, had told us a story about a room called the Orozco Room on the 7th Floor of 66th W 12th Street.

The room is covered in four walls of murals by the Mexican artist José Luis Orozco, painted in 1930; the subjects of these murals include several world revolutions of the time, including the Russian Revolution. Both Josef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin are depicted in portrait. When explaining the murals, the curator explained to us that in the 1950s, the school had found these murals objectionable and had covered them with a yellow curtain.

I was shocked. A university as liberal as the New School, censoring itself? I became very curious. Then, the curator took it a step further: “The curtain hung for several years, but no one knew when it was taken down!”

Fortunately, I was in school, and curiosity is useful there. I needed to write a research paper for a class about writing research papers. It could be about any topic. What topic could be better (and perhaps easier to investigate) than a strange historical mystery from the past that just happened to take place in the building in which I was currently sitting?

I was looking to take the easy way out on a research paper, and instead, I became absorbed. After not finding much on google, I asked the curator where I could find more information about the history of the murals and she told me about The New School Archives. I made an appointment, brought my camera and my computer, and rang the doorbell.

Like anyone, I had no idea what I was going to find in the grey box full of materials relating to the Orozco murals. It was kind of like Schrödinger’s cat (I think): inside could be either a boring waste of my time or an exciting answer to my question, or neither, or both at once. A box of unknown archival materials is pretty much quantum physics. And just like quantum physics, often times the answers to your questions only lead to more questions.

That’s why I always say that you only need one idea to go to the archives. No matter what you bring, you’ll always leave richer – with more information, but also more questions. Even if your box contains nothing pertaining to what you were looking for, there’s still one more new question: why is it missing?

In my case, I came in asking my research question, and I left still wondering. Soon after, I asked for a job in the art collection of the New School, and the curator, knowing my interest in history, got me a position in the archives.

I’ve done lots of different tasks here, but Wendy and Jenny know that I’m still interested in answering the question of when the mural-covering curtain came down and why. Throughout my time at the archives, I’ve accumulated endless new questions, about all sorts of topics. Maybe the best thing I can do as I leave the archives is to give some of those questions away, so that if anyone needs just one idea to come to the archives, they can have mine.

  • When was the yellow curtain of the Orozco Room removed, and why?
  • Why did Clara Mayer so suddenly leave the New School?
  • What was served in the original school cafeteria? Did it reflect the history of American institutional food?
  • Has any sitting president ever come to the New School, or just future and past ones? What was the response to their visit?
  • What are the stories of some of the New School’s earliest international students? Have the New School and Parsons always welcomed international students as much as they do now?
  • What is the real story of the Parsons Table as told by the archival record?
  • Is there a Parsons Fashion Program “look”? Was there ever?

Perhaps someone else can answer these questions someday, but perhaps they don’t have answers – only more ideas.