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.
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.
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.