Curating UMBC’s Special Collections

Published: Jun 12, 2003

A Place to Learn Together

One of the 1.8 million photographs in UMBC’s Special Collections: Newsboys and Supply Men at Newspaper Office for Baseball Edition,  5 p.m., Cincinnati, Ohio, August 1908 by Lewis Hine

“Curating UMBC’s Special Collections”
UMBC’s Special Collections Department is one of the country’s leading resources for photography, science fiction, Marylandia, biological science archives, and other notable collections of rare books, artifacts and manuscripts. And it’s all at the fingertips—wearing protective gloves, of course—of the campus community and visiting scholars. As Chief Curator, Tom Beck manages and continues to develop the collection, housed at the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery.
UMBC’s Photography Collections alone include 1.8 million photographs by some of the world’s leading photographers, including a portfolio by Ansel Adams; archives by Mildred Grossman, Lotte Jacobi and Lewis Hine; and work by Berenice Abbott, Judy Dater, Roland Freeman, David Plowden, Minor White, and others.  
In order to build Special Collections, Beck is dedicated to developing relationships with photographers and their families, as well as writers, scholars and major organizations. He often collaborates with members of the campus community. For example, UMBC’s science faculty helped the Collections become the foremost center for history of biology archives. Over the past twenty years, the University has acquired archives from the American Society for Microbiology, the American Society for Cell Biology, the American Society for Chemistry and Molecular Biology, the Society for Developmental Biology, the Society of Protozoology and the International Union of Immunological Societies, among others.
Recently, Stephen Braude, professor and chair of the philosophy department and a nationally known expert on parapsychology, assisted Beck in acquiring work by thoughtographer Ted Serios, reputed to be able to print images from his mind onto photographic material.
Beck also collaborates with the Friends of the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery, and with the Library Gallery’s Curator of Exhibitions, Cynthia Wayne, who mounts solo and group exhibitions culled from the extensive Photography Collections. Future exhibitions include newly acquired work by David Seymour, founder of the prestigious Magnum Photos, Inc.
Of the importance of Special Collections, Beck says, “The great Bauhaus educator Laszlo Moholy-Nagy said that ‘the illiterate of the future will be ignorant of both camera as well as pencil.’ The future that he conjectured about has arrived and we live in a world awash in images. People are knowledgeable about them, but not enough. So a collection like ours being available for study is critical for a society that is based so much in visual imagery. Our students have the incredible opportunity to access material right on campus that is rarely found in one place and previously was only available to a privileged few. Here at UMBC, anyone can see these images.”
In addition to his work at UMBC, Beck teaches at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C. He is working on two books about David Seymour: one to be published by the British art publisher, Phaidon, and another for UMBC to showcase Special Collections’ new Seymour photographic holdings.

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