Museum of Performance and Design

Through the Bay Area chapter of SLA, I had the chance to visit the Museum of Performance + Design for a tour of their library and archives.  The Museum recently moved to the SOMA district from the Civic Center.  It was founded in 1947 by Russell Hartley, a dancer and avid collector of items related to the performing arts.  Formerly known at the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum, it is the only independent organization in the country dedicated to the history of the performing arts and theatrical design.


The Museum boasts a collection of over 3.5 million items related to performing arts in the Bay Area, going back to the Gold Rush era, including theater, opera, magic, puppetry, mime, and circus arts.  The library is non-circulating, but it lends out items to other museums.

loft mpd

The Museum is open Monday through Friday and is housed in a loft, with space for exhibits, events, and research.  Right now, the featured exhibit is Shaping Character: Hats From Our Collection, and has lovely hats from companies like The Ballets Russes.  With the reflection from the glass cases, I wasn’t able to get to get a lot of good pictures, but there were some really pretty bejeweled hats and tiara- and crown-like hats on display.

ship hat mpd

pink hat mpd



hat 2

The head librarian shared just how avid the founder was in his collecting of performing arts materials.  In one example, she described how he would buy entire pallets of old San Francisco newspapers and cut out the articles he was interested in.  The Museum has clippings from newspapers going back to 1848 – and still have pallets of papers left to clip.  The clippings are filed chronologically, but aren’t indexed.  She also mentioned that he collected for 40 years without cataloging.

newspapers mpd

Newspapers from the 1800s waiting to be clipped

The Museum has an oral history project, with 70 histories recorded so far.  The Legacy Oral History Program originally started to chronicle the performances of those at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, and eventually expanded.  The Museum also received the papers of the oral history narrators.

In addition to the oral histories, the Museum has a lot of intriguing special collections, including the Anna Halprin collection, a pioneer in modern dance.  It’s the most researched collection they  have, and people inquire from all over the world to access it.  At 60 linear feet, it’s already large, and Ms. Halprin continues to add to it!  The Museum is also the official archives for both the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Ballet.

mtt mpd

The Museum also holds a 60,000+ item collection of sheet music; 1,300 reels of the KSAN radio station archives from 1967 to 1981, which are being digitized; a collection of autographed cabinet cards from performers; over 3,000 opera libretti; broadsides from San Francisco theaters from 1851 to 1882; the archives of the Pickle Family Circus; Stern Grove Festival concert recordings, a free local summer concert series; and the papers of Michael Smuin, award-winning dancer and choreographer.

storage mpd

As part of an NEA grant, they are digitizing dance videos, which are being shared with other grantee organizations.  Over 200 videos have been completed and are accessible at the institutions.

aisles 2

They have two online image collections – Collection of Chinese Theater Images in California and Collection of San Francisco Bay Area Theater Images and Memorabilia – and are digitizing 500 other images now.

digitization mpd

Digitization equipment

Other fun items include a life mask of ballerina Anna Pavlova and love letters from Marcel Marceau to a local woman with whom he had a 40-year relationship.  I really wanted to see their Lotta Crabtree collection, which their catalog says has four folders of clippings, pictures, and programs.  Lotta was a former child star, performing for Gold Rush miners, and went on to become the highest paid actress in the country.  Bay Area residents may have heard of “Lotta’s Fountain”, at the intersection of Market and Kearny Streets, where after the 1906 earthquake, people gathered to share news.  (Every year on the earthquake anniversary, survivors still meet here.)  Lotta donated the fountain to the city in 1875.

costume books mpd

Le costume historique -1888

Like many other libraries and archives, the Museum of Performance and Design has its challenges.  In recent years, they have been downsized from 11 staff to 3 – an Executive Director, a Head Librarian/Archivist, and a grant-funded Project Archivist.

Lots and lots of records

Lots and lots of records

Also, perhaps due to the collecting habits of its founder, or because it was housed in many different locations over many years, there is no provenance on many of the items in its archives.

maquette mpd

A maquette for The Nutcracker, 1967

All three staff were at the tour, which was led by the Head Librarian/Archivist, and all were very friendly and generous with their time.  If you are interested in any aspect of the performing arts, it is well worth a visit!

A costume design for Candide

A costume design for Candide

  • Number of staff – Three
  • Number of books – ?  Over 3.5 million items
  • Number of databases – ?
  • Number of computers for patron use – It looked like two
  • Favorite items/collections – Love letters from Marcel Marceau (Executive Director Muriel Maffre)
  • Target users – Anyone interested in the history of Bay Area performing arts
  • Circulation – Non-circulating
  • Special collections – San Francisco newspapers, audio collection, 60,000 item sheet music collection, Anna Halprin collection, KSAN radio broadcast archive from 1967 to 1981, Lotta Crabtree collection, Oral Histories from Bay Area performers, Stern Grove Festival concert recordings, San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Ballet
  • Notable items –  A life mask of ballerina Anna Pavlova, autographed cabinet cards of performers
  • Other services – Exhibits, events

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One thought on “Museum of Performance and Design

  1. Pingback: 2014 in review | exbibliolibris

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