In addition to being a former community art center still in operation, the Roswell Museum's significance to WPA history stems from its archive, which documents its federal activities. This publication provides an overview of the histories contained within this archive, with the understanding that full digitization remains the long-term objective.
Although the archive offers rich insights into the Roswell Museum's tenure as a WPA institution, it does have limitations. The first major issue is that the archive is incomplete. Several exhibitions are missing shipping receipts or other forms, for example, while other shows have no paperwork at all and are only mentioned in correspondence between staff members. Other official forms such as monthly reports were also preserved inconsistently, with only the years 1938, 1941, and 1942 represented.
Another issue is that some of the documents serve unclear functions in relation to the museum's operations. Such is the case with several templates for colcha patterns, a historical Spanish embroidery technique that experienced a resurgence during the New Deal era. Although the museum did have a colcha-embroidered curtain as part of its furnishings, the templates in the archive do not match the curtain patterns. The templates may have been used for other projects, but until photographs or other descriptions can verify their use, this conjecture remains hypothetical. Nevertheless, their preservation within the archive suggests that they were important to the staff members who worked here at the time.
Most significantly, the archive reflects a specific institutional voice. Since the Roswell Museum staff technically worked for the Federal Art Project, the majority of the archive consists of federal forms and incidental correspondence from employees. Few examples from the museum's local sponsors at the Chaves County Archaeological and Historical Society survive. As a result, the interactions that occurred between the staff and sponsors reflect federal viewpoints.
To take one example, the staff regularly disagreed with the museum's sponsors about how to implement educational initiatives. Since the Community Art Center Project mandated that centers offer art classes, the staff concentrated on implementing this objective. The sponsors, by contrast, wanted to promote regional history through collections-based displays. Throughout this disagreement, the museum's directors describe the sponsors as uninterested in pursuing educational initiatives. Given their interest in promoting history, it seems improbable that the sponsors dismissed the idea of education, but they likely questioned the relevance of art classes to their own objectives. Since little paperwork survives from them, however, we have to glean their perspectives from federal correspondence while recognizing that these documents do not present all viewpoints equally.
Among the staff itself, moreover, the archive primarily reflects the experiences of the museum's administrators. The archive's predominantly administrative perspective becomes apparent when we take a closer look at the surviving correspondence. While all museum employees were expected to complete official forms such as monthly reports or times sheets, they also wrote letters to FAP staff, local artists, and other individuals to address specific questions or issues. Encompassing a range of topics, from payroll to exhibition schedules, these letters offer some of the most candid perspectives on the Roswell Museum as an institution. Nearly 600 letters survive in the archive, but the majority of them come from directors. The letters of one director alone, Roland Dickey, represents more than half of the total surviving correspondence, with more than 300 written documents credited to him. Consequently, the archive primarily reflects the perspectives of a few directors rather than the entire staff. We have to infer the experiences of the museum's gallery attendants, custodians, carpenters, and volunteers from administrative writings.
The other major voices missing from the archive are among the most important for any museum: the visitors themselves. With the exception of a couple of documents such as a guest sign-in sheet or a class thank-you note, written impressions from the visitors themselves have not survived. While the museum staff regularly noted visitor numbers, these quantitative recordings do not describe emotional or intellectual responses. As with the non-administrative staff, we have to rely on indirect references through staff correspondence and newspaper clippings.
The Roswell Museum archive remains an important repository and provides significant insight into the various roles this institution played in 1930s Roswell. Recognizing its limitations and biases, however, can help us put its various documents into perspective. For all its thoroughness, the archive conveys only some of the histories surrounding the Roswell Museum, with the majority of these stories reflecting federal perspectives. To gain a better understanding of local experiences, we need to read between the lines in the federal documents while remaining open to other sources of information, including newspaper articles, oral histories, and other accounts. Only by taking in all of these perspectives can we begin to reconstruct these missing voices and develop richer histories for the Roswell Museum.
Risam, Roopika. New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2018.
All other documents come from the Roswell Museum and Art Center WPA Archive.
Robert Sprague, "Museum if of Real Cultural Value to City," Roswell Daily Record, July 9, 1938.
Russell Vernon Hunter to Robert Sprague, March 21, 1938.
Roland Dickey to Russell Vernon Hunter, December 3, 1938.