A Few of Our Favorite Things: Logbook

If anyone were curious about what the thermostatic mixing valve in the Playhouse is made of, who the Mughal Garden fountain spigots were purchased from, or what kind of wood Moroccan artisans used for the living room and foyer ceilings, chances are, we’ve got the answers (white metal-plated copper alloy, Novelty Foundry, and painted cedar, respectively). The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art is extremely fortunate to have such detailed information about the house and its collections—and we have the Shangri La managers and recordkeepers, from 1936 onward, to thank.

As an archivist, I’m very interested in recordkeeping. In fact, it’s my job to ensure that researchers can not only find information contained in records, but that they can also understand how and why those records were originally created and maintained.

Logbook, 1939–1944. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.

It should come as no surprise, then, that my favorite thing at Shangri La is an item from the archives. It’s a logbook kept from 1939 to 1944, and it records items received by and sent from Shangri La. The arrival of important collections items—the Syrian mother-of-pearl chests Doris Duke (1912–93) purchased from Asfar & Sarkis (65.46), the Persian tomb cover purchased from Hagop Kevorkian in 1940 (48.348), and the Spanish luster plates purchased from the William Randolph Hearst sales (e.g., 48.114)—are recorded here, along with the arrival of more utilitarian items like books, shoes, and three rubber raincoats for use on Doris Duke’s yacht. The departure of important objects, like the Guanyin statue shipped from Shangri La to Duke Farms in January 1941 to make room for the newly acquired Veramin mihrab (48.327), is recorded here as well.

Logbooks like this one (records such as these were kept intermittently through the 1980s) help us to understand an object’s provenance and acquisition. Historical photographs, dealer invoices and correspondence, and shipping and insurance receipts all offer partial information about how and when objects were purchased. The logbooks, because they confirm the receipt of objects and usually indicate the date and dealer or country of origin, are very important pieces of this puzzle.

The logbook records the receipt of three mother-of-pearl chests from Syria on June 22, 1940. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.

What’s more, this particular logbook functions as a chronicle of the collection during a very important period of its development—the period following Doris Duke’s 1938 trip to the Middle East. Just about every two weeks, shipments of objects, textiles and furniture from dealers and galleries were received at Shangri La. Collections objects were almost as often leaving Shangri La, to be shipped to one of Doris Duke’s other properties, or to be sent out for repair, fumigation or other conservation treatment.

Since records of Doris Duke articulating her collecting objectives and vision are relatively scarce, we rely on evidence like this to figure out what she may have been thinking. For example, we can trace in archival and curatorial records how Duke’s needs and tastes as a collector changed over time—how she began by collecting practical objects that could be used at Shangri La, then became more discerning, developing concerted interests in Ilkhanid Persian tilework, Qajar Persian art, and late Ottoman Syrian interiors and furnishings, among other subjects.

Keeping good records is also a part of our responsibility as stewards of these objects—indeed, documenting collections is part of the American Association of Museums’ code of ethics. In short, the more information we can gather about the DDFIA collection, the better we can understand and care for them!

 NOTE: This logbook will likely be displayed in the next exhibit case installation in Shangri La’s Damascus Room, the one area onsite where visitors can view such important archival items.

This Summer at Aphrodisias: A Roman City


The partial reconstruction of a ceremonial street decorated with high relief sculpture in an architectural setting. The unfinished project will be completed in 2013. (Photo: Kent Severson.)

A little after four in the morning, the silence is broken by the sound of drummers passing nearby, waking the faithful early to eat before beginning the day’s fast. It is Ramadan in south west Turkey. I arrived at the New York University archaeological excavations at Aphrodisias on the ninth of July and the wake-up sequence has started with drummers since the twentieth. The drummers wake the dogs, who howl to each other until the call to prayer echoes across the landscape a little after five, as Homer’s ‘rosy fingered dawn’ begins to light the sky. Going back to sleep is hopeless, and so begins another day on an active archaeological site.

Aphrodisias is a well preserved, medium-sized Roman city, known for its wealth of sculpture and extravagantly decorated buildings. To learn more about the site, visit the New York University website. This season marks my twentieth year of participation in the project. Future participation will depend on the work load at Shangri La, but it is likely that this will be my last full season—making for a wistful, nostalgic six weeks.

Quinn Ferris and Volkan Sevinç cleaning an inscription on the shattered marble floor of the Civil Basilica for photography. (Photo: Kent Severson.)

I am the senior field conservator at Aphrodisias, and my primary responsibility is for the care of artifacts from the moment of discovery—through the process of cleaning and stabilization—to a new life in the on-site museum or in a long-term storage depot. I have two student interns this season, Quinn Ferris from the New York University Institute of Fine Arts conservation training program and Volkan Sevinç from Ankara University’s Vocational Training School conservation program. While waiting for newly excavated finds to appear, they patiently nibble away at our backlog of over a thousand coins from previous seasons, which were waiting to be cleaned, and boxes of Late Roman glass tessera wall mosaics.

The season begins somewhat slowly. Archaeologists have opened two big excavations, one in a long decorative pool that was the centerpiece of a colonnaded stoa in the center of the city, known as the South Agora, and another series of trenches along what might be called Aphrodisias’s “Broadway,” a central street connecting the theater with the sacred area near the Temple of Aphrodite. The superimposed layers of soil in both excavations begin with a thick layer of Medieval mud that yields few artifacts of note.

The Hadrianic Bath in 2010 at the end of the season. This year’s work is taking place in the center rooms of the complex, under the limestone arches. (Photo: Ian Cartwright for N.Y.U Aphrodisias Excavations.)

Meanwhile, in addition to looking after recently excavated material, I work with my colleague Trevor Proudfoot, of Cliveden Conservation Workshop, Maidenhead, England, to stabilize and preserve larger structures and their decorative features in situ. Since 2008 we have been working in a large bath building, built during the time of Hadrian (AD 117–138). This season, in addition to relaying shattered floors and revetments, we clear debris from a collapsed hypocaust, an under-floor heating system. Although previously excavated, tons of soil, broken mortar and stones, and other debris remain; with our shade nets up and a long ramp in place, the work resembles a mining operation.

Kent Severson at the start of clearing operations in the hypocaust of the Hadrianic Bath. (Photo: Trevor Proudfoot.)
Excavator Austen Di Pinto (New York University Institute of Fine Arts) measuring the location of one of the Roman portrait statues just before lifting from the trench. (Photo: Ian Cartwright.)

Things don’t heat up in the excavations until August 13, with the discovery of two life-size Roman portrait sculptures that had been used as footing for a Medieval wall. It takes an entire day for me and a team of workmen to extricate them, but by the 16th they are lifted by crane and transported to our workshop for cleaning. The sculptures are deposited, one face up and one face down, at an elevation where rising and falling groundwater leaves behind a hard grey crust. The Late Antique portrait of a very stout man that was face up cannot easily be cleaned in the short time left to us on site, but the High Imperial portrait that was face down cleans up beautifully, revealing exquisite carving and traces of a high polish.

With the end of Ramadan on the 19th of August, the 2012 excavations at Aphrodisias come to an exciting end. Upon hearing that it might be my last full season for some time, my friends and colleagues conspire to throw a surprise dinner and dance party in my honor before we all leave to return to the real world. Saying “so long” to the local workmen with whom I have labored for so many years breaks my heart, but the warmth expressed by my teammates provides necessary closure. Although I will miss archaeological field work dearly, I look forward to the days ahead at Shangri La.