Amherst’s Jones Library pruning fine arts collection

  • A doll that once belonged to the poet Lucy Larcom is among the items Jones Library trustees are removing from the library’s fine arts collection. COURTESY JONES LIBRARY

Staff Writer
Published: 8/29/2021 8:49:38 PM

AMHERST — Walls of the Jones Library feature paintings from the collection of early 20th century Amherst businessman William A. Burnett, whose family donated over 100 pieces of art, including bronzes and other objects, for display at the new public building when it opened in 1928, two years after his death.

Later, John W. Burgess and Ruth Payne Burgess also looked to sponsor a fine arts wing for the Jones, but the bequest was insufficient to carry out their plans. Still, some art by Ruth Payne Burgess, a cousin of library benefactor Samuel Minot Jones, forms part of the library’s art collection.

While art has always been vital to the Jones Library, hundreds of artifacts and other items held in the library’s fine arts collection, including Chinaware and ceramics, dolls, weapons Oriental rugs and furniture, are not considered essential and could be removed through sales at auction, transfers to other institutions or disposals.

The trustees for the library, after a lengthy analysis by local experts of the 1,150 three-dimensional objects in the collection, approved the so-called deaccessioning of parts of the fine arts collection that do not meet an artwork policy approved by the trustees in 2004.

“All of these objects are out of scope to our collections, having no provenance or no connection to Amherst,” Cynthia Harbeson wrote in a memo to the trustees. “Additionally, some items are in poor condition.”

Harbeson also noted that the Jones Library has limited storage space and is trying to expand and diversify its collections, and some items are taking up valuable shelf space while providing little historical value. All the items are currently kept in the Amity Street building.

“The materials are stored at the Jones Library, but in various places throughout the building,” Harbeson said.

The process for determining what could eventually be removed from the collection began in May when the trustees’ Personnel, Planning and Policy Committee gave Harbeson the go-ahead to begin this examination. This came following an assessment by museum consultant Richard Malley of the value of the items and recommendations on their disposal done in 2016.

Harbeson then formed a committee of local experts to review Malley’s work and confirm that various pieces do not meet the requirements of the artwork policy, which states that “the purpose of the art collection is to develop and maintain a distinctive collection of fine art; to enhance the environment for library patrons, staff, and visitors; and to expose this audience to an aspect of the cultural life of Amherst with which they may not be familiar.”

Local experts formed what was known as the Deaccessions Committee and included Mike Kelly, head of Special Collections and University Archives at Amherst College, Julie Bartlett Nelson, archivist at Forbes Library in Northampton, Jennifer Tuleja, library director at The MacDuffie School in Granby and Jane Wald, executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst.

That committee noted that, for instance, a 19th-century powder horn with no provenance information is not appropriate for an archive or special collection, but it might find new life as a prop in a local theater production. Other cultural heritage institutions could accept some of the materials under consideration for deaccession. The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York might take the dolls purchased for the library through the worldwide Doll Club in the 1950s and 1960s.

Oriental rugs collectively valued at $24,975 in 2013 are also not determined to be appropriate for the fine arts collection because they have no relationship to Amherst, are not historically valuable for scholarly purposes and are unable to be properly maintained and cared for.

Some of the deaccessioned items will be kept and used at the library, such as furniture, so long as it remains useful.

“Any items that are appropriate for future use as furnishings in either the Jones or the branches will be set aside for that purpose,” Harbeson said.

Others will be transferred to other institutions, placed in public auction or discarded, as a last resort, if in poor condition or with no monetary or historic value.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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