Archives & Manuscripts

Finding something you didn’t want to find in the archives

Response to

Recently, construction workers at the Colorado State Archives in Denver discovered a number of portraits that had been blocked from view by some poorly-placed pegboard. Why were they lost?

The archives simply lost track of the portraits at some point in the last few decades, said Doug Platt, communications manager for the Colorado Office of Personnel and Administration.

“It’s not unlike someone’s basement in their home,” he said. “You have stuff in boxes and in bags that you haven’t looked at in a while and sometimes you forget what’s in there. And that’s essentially what happened.”

A portrait of Clarence Morley, Colorado’s twenty-fourth governor, was among those found. Morley, a known member of the Ku Klux Klan, served as governor from 1925 to 1927 after an ugly and hate-filled campaign. Its recovery presents a dilemma for archivists and lawmakers alike. Should Morley’s portrait be displayed in the Capitol building with other governors’? If so, how should it be captioned? What duty do the Capitol building’s administrators have to confront the ugliness in Colorado’s history?

As a historian, I find things I didn’t want to find in the archives all the time. Usually it’s something that disrupts or complicates the argument I was hoping to make. Or something that deepens my argument but makes it clear that I have a lot more work to do.

This situation with Morley’s portrait is a little different–when you’ve been able to sweep quietly under the rug the issue of an ugly history, and then the archives present you with a visible reminder of it, the stakes seem a little higher.

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