There’s an Archivist for That! Interview with Lilly Carrel, Archivist, The Menil Collection

This is the latest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect.  In this post, COPA member Vince Lee brings you an interview with Lilly Carrel, Archivist at the Menil Archives, part of the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas.

Archivist Lilly Carrel outside of the Menil Archives. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Anthony Flores.

VL: How did you get your gig?

LC: I joined the Menil Archives in July 2018. Previously I worked as a project archivist at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. I earned my Master of Science in Information Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and since graduating my goal has always been to return to Texas. After two project positions, I applied to the archivist job opening at the Menil. I was particularly drawn to the position because of the diversity of job responsibilities including records management, digital preservation, and all aspects of the archival enterprise. I also felt a deep connection to the institutional mission to make art accessible and a commitment to social responsibility and justice. I have no background in art, but I love that as an archivist I am able to apply my expertise in records theory and practice to different content and promote this extraordinarily rich collection of art-related records.

VL: Tell us about your organization.

LC: The Menil Collection is an art museum located in Houston, Texas in a 30-acre neighborhood of art, and houses the art collection of founders John and Dominique de Menil. The Menil Collection includes the main building, designed by architect Renzo Piano and opened in 1987, the Cy Twombly Gallery, the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, and the Menil Drawing Institute, designed by Los Angeles-based architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee (Johnston Marklee) and opened in November 2018.

The Menil Collection and its diverse neighborhood of art is governed by the Menil Foundation, established in 1954 by the de Menils. Prior to the opening of the Menil Collection, the de Menils had active partnerships with the University of St. Thomas and Rice University and organized many important and influential art exhibitions. The Menil Archives is the institutional repository for the Foundation and is responsible for acquisition, organization, preservation, and access to museum records and special collections.

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VL: Describe your collections.

LC: The Menil Archives was founded in 2000 and its primary function is to identify, collect, organize, preserve, and make accessible records of informational and evidential value to the institution. The Archives primarily document the functions and activities of the Foundation including records of the board of trustees, exhibition history files, building projects, and museum departments such as Curatorial, Collection Development, and the Business Office. The Menil Archives also holds a number of special collections including the papers of art critic and collector Rosalind Constable, curator Jermayne MacAgy, and artists Jim Love and Roy Fridge; family papers of John and Dominique de Menil; and research papers from Menil-funded publications including the René Magritte and Jasper Johns catalogue raisonnés.

The Archives total approximately 2,500 linear feet and includes records in all formats—textual, audiovisual, born-digital, photographs, film, architectural drawings, ephemera, and some objects. The Menil Archives has a limited number of inventories available on its website and in 2019 will begin contributing finding aids to Texas Archival Resources Online (TARO), a state-wide consortium of archives, libraries, and museums.

VL: What are some challenges unique to your collections?

LC: Museum archives are an interesting type of archives. Often departments need to maintain physical and intellectual ownership of their records because, in a sense, they are always active. Example include conservation records which may document treatments of artworks, or artwork object files frequently referenced by curators and registrars. This can lead to confusion as to what records “belong in the archives,” but also offers opportunities to collaborate and facilitate a post-custodial approach to recordkeeping. Since joining the Menil, I’ve been exploring ways to improve records management practices with a particular focus on electronic records and digital preservation. I think digital preservation offers creative ways to enhance the post-custodial approach and ensure important records are preserved.

VL: What is your favorite part of your job?

LC: The Menil Archives is an exciting place to work! Every day is different and I love the dynamic nature of working in a two-person shop. I am fortunate to collaborate with excellent colleagues including Lisa Barkley, Archival Associate, who has been with the Menil since 2008. Every day presents new opportunities, projects, reference inquiries, and I am always learning. I also feel fortunate to work for an institution with a keen sense of its own history, that values and seeks out the rich archival resources available to staff and the public.


Original captions for the photographs included in the slideshow had to be shortened in order to fit into the slideshow window.  The full original captions are provided below:

  • The Menil Collection. Photo: Kevin Keim.

  • Dominique de Menil and artist Jim Love, Rice University, 1972. Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

  • The De Lux Theater, Houston, 1971. Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

  • Peter Bradley (center) and others installing art for “The De Lux Show” De Lux Theater, Houston, 1971. Bradley, an artist, curated the exhibition. Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

  • Installation photography of “The De Lux Show” De Lux Theater, Houston, 1971. Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

  • Exhibition history records, Menil Archives. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Anthony Flores.

  • Creating an inventory for a recent accession. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. Photo: Anthony Flores.

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