In the three decades he served as director, Fiske Kimball worked tirelessly to complete the Museum's construction begun in 1919 and to fill the new building with encyclopedic collections of American and international art, architecture and decorative arts. These records document Kimball's devotion to the Museum and its staff and his boundless energy to guide his institution through an economic depression, the resulting federal relief programs, a world war, a cold war, and an awakening to the art being created in response to these world-changing events of the 20th century.
While the records consist primarily of correspondence, there is a substantial amount of photographs, mostly of objects, rooms and architectural elements offered for purchase. Also included are numerous newspaper clippings, ephemera, and notes, as well as floor plans and installation drawings, legal documents, reports, minutes, press releases and several publications, including government regulations and statutes. Original cross-references, usually preprinted forms on yellow or blue paper, have also been retained even though many no longer represent accurate referrals. Much of the paperwork generated by Kimball consists of his handwritten drafts and final versions. According to the finding aid prepared when the records were first processed in 1981, the records are a "composite" of files because for a number of years Kimball's records served as the "Museum's central file in which staff records were assembled periodically." Although this implied co-mingling blurs provenance, all the papers, regardless of generating office, make Kimball's involvement in every aspect of the Museum's operation apparent.
Kimball's correspondents were numerous, representing all aspects of the art world, from international dealers and auction houses, scholars, artists, educators, and other major art museums to professional organizations and journals, government officials, manufacturers, and endowment organizations. To cultivate a substantial donor base, Kimball wrote frequently to many of Philadelphia's oldest and wealthiest families, such as the Elkins, Lea, Lorimer, McFadden, McIlhenny, Powel and Widener families, and to some of the country's most prominent private collectors, such as Chester Dale, Walter and Louise Arensberg, Edward G. Robinson, and Thomas B. Clarke. Kimball also wrote regularly to the Museum's corporate officers and various committee chairs and the Fairmount Park Commissioners, who oversaw the City's financial connection with the Museum. From this correspondence emerges the development of many of the Museum's policies and procedures affecting operations, funding, staffing, and collection development. For many staff members, both administrative and curatorial, there is significant documentation throughout most of the nine series that comprise these records. For several key personnel, there is documentation of Kimball's recruitment efforts, and for many, especially during the depression years, there are countless letters of recommendation Kimball wrote in an attempt to place those whose jobs were lost through budget cuts.
Kimball's office hours had no limits since it appears that he would continue working on Museum matters while home at Lemon Hill, the colonial house in Fairmount Park provided to him and Marie during his directorship. Because most of those papers, usually notated with an "LH" by Kimball, pertain to his other interests of research, writing and consulting, particularly in architectural matters, they have remained as originally processed as part of the Fiske Kimball Papers (FKP). Some of this correspondence, however, does relate to items processed in the records. Therefore, the correspondence series in FKP, also filed alphabetically by author, may need to be consulted.
These records also reveal some of the underlying social and cultural issues that informed many of Kimball's actions and goals. For example, in a 1936 letter Kimball shows an awareness of the psychological impact of the depression, noting the "wretched situation of our men," who were minimally compensated and given no days off, and the need to give "decent treatment" to these employees because "there is much smouldering feeling [sic] of injustice." During World War II, Kimball collected information about bomb shelters and atomic attacks and exchanged correspondence with other institutions regarding the safe keeping of artwork. Another war repercussion becomes evident through a "Notice of Sale" issued in 1944 by the Alien Property Custodian inviting bids on "certain property formerly owned by certain foreign nationals." In a 1950 letter to Her Serene Highness of Liechtenstein, Kimball cuts to the heart of the cold war menace and offers the Museum as a site of safe keeping for the royal collection since "nothing can prevent the Russians, in case of war, from making the 'promenade d'Europe,' and taking anything they wish back ... as they did the contents of the Dresden Museum." Such subtle commentaries add a depth to the records, placing the Museum's activities within a larger social context.
Files pertaining to the acquisition of Walter and Louise Arensberg's collection of modern and pre-Columbian art are available in digital format. This digital collection is derived from correspondence and notes documenting Kimball's untiring efforts to bring the art collection to the Museum. The papers also chronicle the development of a sincere friendship between the Arensbergs and Kimball and his wife Marie. Letters from all four are included, and almost a decade's worth of coast-to-coast writing and traveling are represented. Also included are color images of sketches made by Kimball of proposed galleries for the Arensberg's collection. All images for this digital collection are located in the "Art collection" subseries of the "Objects and related topics" series.