Using Archives—The Quest for the Gold Ciborium

The pursuit of historical truth, from national heritage to community identity or individual biography, depends upon archives—the portion of records selected for permanent preservation. In the west, recordkeeping emerged within the development of justice and administration—the earliest English law code is that of King Aethelberht of Kent, c.600, following the arrival of Augustine of Canterbury and the encouragement of peaceful dispute resolution. Henceforth, a fundamental and enduring feature of legal process comes to us from the Anglo-Saxons: the writ and the charter. Yet, throughout the early middle ages, grants and other legal deeds were made in public ceremonies where the attendant witnesses were the ‘memory’ of the act, not always supplemented by a charter. But, by the thirteenth century, documentary evidence had become necessary to prove ownership of land or other grants of the king, and records began to constitute the activity itself.

Over time, the type, format, and number of records has proliferated but those that are preserved, as archives, are the critical vestiges of ancient and recent memory—individual memories, institutional memories, national memories. They are primary sources essential to historical method to evidence claims of historical fact based on a reasoned interpretation of the records—these are the tasks of historians and scholars whose published research is found in secondary sources. Both types of sources are necessary when greeted with the archival FAQ, “I want to know more about this person, place, or thing—what do you have?” A recent request related to a church vessel, the “gold ciborium” at Christ Church Cranbrook. As is the case with any research, the starting place is to discover what has already been done. The first place to look for information on the art works at Christ Church Cranbrook is the Pilgrims’ Guide, first published in 1939, which guides visitors through the church with details of its artworks and craftsmen.

The Pilgrim’s Guide (4th Ed.), Thistle [Henry S. Booth], 1956

While the Guide is full of meticulously researched information, there was no mention of a ciborium. The reference files were similarly silent, except a photocopied memo from George Gough Booth dated 1927, listing a ciborium made by Arthur Stone (1992-01 5:2). And, sure enough, in the George Gough Booth Papers (1981-01, 22:7), there is correspondence with Arthur Stone about a gold-plated ciborium. Voilà! Well, not quite… it was not the right one. So, we found a photograph of it in the photo files, though it had no date, photographer or artist details, only the words “silver gilt ciborium”.

Silver Gilt Ciborium
Copyright Cranbrook Archives, photographer unknown.

An inventory written by Henry Scripps Booth in 1960 (1981-01 20:6) has two ciboriums listed—that of Arthur Stone and another one with blanks for the creator and date of creation. But, taking a step back to the contemporaneous records for the building of the church, there are detailed ledgers for its construction and decoration. If the ciborium was purchased by George Gough Booth, there would most certainly be a record of it. Looking closely at the ledger pages, it is clear that a ciborium was commissioned from three separate artists: A. Nevill Kirk, Arthur Stone, and Helen K. Mills. These have certificate numbers which can be matched up with the ‘Cranbrook Church notebook’. So, we know that a third ciborium was purchased from an artist called Helen K. Mills, and the notebook gives us the date, February 7, 1928.

There is correspondence with Kirk and Stone in the Christ Church Cranbrook series of George’s papers but none with Helen Mills. But there must be some elsewhere. When we are processing archives, we must carefully consider three things: content (who created the documents and what is in them?), context (in what circumstances were they created and why?), and structure (how do they relate to other documents in the collection and the institution?). These things can also be applied in using archives. So, in looking for correspondence with artists regarding artwork at the time of the construction of the church, there is another place to look—the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts correspondence. Here we find correspondence between Helen Keeling Mills, Helen Plumb, and George Gough Booth.

While records might initially be kept to evidence an activity, over time they are of historical value. They can help us understand a person, provide knowledge of an organization, contribute to knowledge of a craft or a culture, they inform us of the creation of an object so that it may be maintained and preserved in its most beneficial environment. Last, but not least, a document becomes an artifact in itself because of who wrote it, what it says, and because it is simply beautiful. This correspondence was kept initially to document his transaction with Helen as part of the wider collection of records for the church. But we can learn much more from it. We know something about the creative process of the ciborium—what it is made of, the saints depicted upon it, that it was sent to another artist after which it was damaged. We know the importance that Helen placed in her work and her regret of the damage. We can see George’s gracious response and understanding—his appreciation of her devotion to her work and the joy that will be taken in the object she created.

This research query helped to draw information out of the archive that was hitherto not expressly known. There is now a reference file to aid future researchers so that the knowledge is accessible with references to the records that document it, and the research process need not be made again. And so, just as teachers learn from their students, the archive and archivists learn from their researchers.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

One thought on “Using Archives—The Quest for the Gold Ciborium

  1. LAURA, WHAT A GREAT ARTICLE EXPLAINING HOW RESEARCH IS PROPERLY DONE TO ARRIVE AT THE TRUTH…I LEARNED MUCH MORE ABOUT THE ACTUAL PROCESS THAN I HAD EVER KNOWN. LOIS HARSH

    Liked by 1 person

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