Imperfect History: Curating the Graphic Arts Collection at Benjamin Franklin’s Public Library, an exhibition funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Graphic Arts Department, explores the development of the Library’s graphics art collection as it relates to historical and cultural biases within American history.

The Imperfect History digital catalog creatively engages with the exhibition’s theme of (un)conscious bias and multiple viewpoints. Four guest catalogers from the curatorial, art history, and studio art fields have authored descriptions of the same three visual materials from their individual perspective as affected by their discipline. The conceptual and contextual insights about the images are accompanied by corresponding keywords and/or headings of the author’s construction. Records created using rare visual materials national cataloging standards, including subject headings, also comprise the catalog. A traditionally standardized, “objective” process has been made pro-actively subjective and diverse.

The digital catalog further showcases the Imperfect History theme that graphic arts can be viewed from a multiplicity of perspectives and that the curator (or cataloger) is not necessarily the final or only arbiter in deciding an item’s meaning.


The entries by the guest catalogers were submitted between July 2020 and February 2021. Originally scheduled for July 2020, the implementation timeframe of the catalog was altered as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The social, economic, and cultural effects of this unprecedented public health crisis, the concurrent 2020 Black Lives Matter and social justice protests, as well as the January 2021 insurrection at the United States Capitol need to be acknowledged as contributing influences on the works included in Imperfect History: The Digital Catalog.

The Imperfect History curatorial team also wishes to acknowledge University of Washington Assistant Professor of Art History Professor Juliet Sperling with whom conversations about the professional roles of curators and scholars inspired the framework for the catalog.

Minimal editing has been made to the content and formats of the entries to conform to the catalogers’ original texts and constructions of their contributions.

Imperfect History is supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, Walter J. Miller Trust, Center for American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Jay Robert Stiefel and Terra Foundation for American Art.

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