A Glimpse of New York's Past in Newly-Completed Online Collections

by Annie Tummino, Project Manager, METRO

The New York World’s Fairs of the mid-twentieth century occupy a special place in the hearts of New Yorkers and people from around the world. Each Fair embodies the zeitgeist of the times: in 1939, a nation emerging from the Great Depression but on the brink of war; and in 1964, a Disney-inspired pop paradise contrasting with civil rights protests and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

annie-with-flat-files.jpgNow, those with scholarly interest or personal nostalgia for these momentous events of yesteryear can rejoice! In the fall of 2014, the Museum of the City of New York and the Queens Museum completed an 18-month Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR)-funded Hidden Collections project to process the New York World’s Fair Collections held at both institutions.

Together, the museums hold around 12,000 World’s Fair items (approximately 360 boxes and 450 oversized/irregular objects), including books, pamphlets, printed ephemera, original artworks, film and audio recordings, photographs, architectural models and drawings, textiles, and realia. As Project Archivist, I was responsible for processing and re-housing the collection, overseeing the creation of finding aids that intellectually united both museums’ collections, and cataloging 1650 highlights at the object level.

The CLIR grant allowed these previously hidden materials to emerge as an intellectually unified collection, providing a single point of entry for researchers looking to learn more about the Fairs. The Queens Library served as a consulting partner in the project to share the finding aids and item-level catalog records through their online database, as they are well-positioned to serve the needs of the local and scholarly community as the borough that hosted both Fairs. (The 1939/1940 finding aid is available here and the 1964/1965 finding aid is available here.)

Working with these collections on a daily basis was a real joy. The New York World’s Fairs provide an entrée into a diverse selection of research topics from industrial design and architecture to consumerism and tourism, as well as politics at the local, national, and international levels. The varied formats and subjects of the items provide an unusually holistic perspective on events that shaped the physical and cultural landscape of New York City even as their impact was felt around the globe. The ephemera, photographs, mementos, and films in the collection bring to life the surreal and oversized nature of the Fairs.

In order to remain true to the character of these events, I turned to the Official Guidebooks to organize materials as the Fairs themselves were physically organized. The 1939/40 Fair was divided into seven “zones” and the 1964/64 Fair into five “areas.” As I used the guidebooks to familiarize myself with the organization of the Fairs, I was occasionally surprised by what I learned. For example, the Infant Incubator at the 1939 Fair, which housed premature infants viewable through glass windows, was located not in the Medical and Public Health Building as I had guessed, but rather in the Amusement area. Such distinctions demonstrate how public ideas of “amusement” have changed over time. This illustrates the essential nature of primary sources when describing and investigating the past.

While the CLIR grant did not fund digitization, our processing and cataloging efforts complemented digitization activities undertaken by the partnering institutions. The Museum of the City of New York has digitized photographs of the 1939/40 Fair by architectural photographer Richard Wurts and a large group of design renderings created by the 1939 Fair’s Board of Design, the body often credited with creating the artistic and social vision of the “World of Tomorrow.” Thanks to the Queens Library's mobile digitization unit, many of the items in the Queens Museum collection have also been digitized and added to the library's online database. Additionally, some of the amateur films in the collection were digitized and made accessible through a prior CLIR project with Northeast Historic Film and George Eastman House.

If you’re interested in a more detailed account of the arrangement and metadata sharing strategies employed during the project, check out my paper authored for the recent CLIR Symposium, “Innovation, Collaboration, and Models.”


The photo above features Annie Tummino working with flat files at Museum of the City of New York.