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The Past Goes Digital

The digitization of the Carnegie Hall Archives and the Digital Hall of Fame initiative bring the great venue’s past into the present—and the future. Martin Cullingford discovers how.


Every organization has a story to tell. Few, however, are as significant to an understanding of New York’s cultural life over the past century and a quarter as that of Carnegie Hall. From its foundations in a then-far-from-fashionable quarter in 1891 to its place at the pinnacle of performance today, its story is interwoven with that of music-making itself.

And it’s a story that Carnegie Hall strongly believes shouldn’t reside purely in climate-controlled cabinets or in photos lining the walls en route to an auditorium. It wants to make sure it is accessible to everyone. And what better way to do that than by placing it on the Internet?

The project to digitize Carnegie Hall’s archive is now a few years old. It stemmed from the 100th anniversary of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, founded by Andrew Carnegie himself for “the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding.” It was looking for important projects to support, and digitizing Carnegie Hall’s archive and making it widely available perfectly fit that brief.


Gino Francesconi (Photo by Jennifer Taylor)  

But first some history, if you’ll excuse the pun. Carnegie Hall did not, in fact, establish an archive until 1986, so a good portion of its heritage was, in a word, missing. With the 100th anniversary looming in 1990, it set about fixing that, and so, as Carnegie Hall archivist Gino Francesconi puts it, “For many years that’s really all we were doing—collecting, collecting, collecting to fill the gap in our history.” Through advertisements in newspapers and magazines, the general public was called upon to help and donated many thousands of items. One such donation, which even led to the establishment of a museum at Carnegie Hall, was one of Benny Goodman’s clarinets, given by his family. Other items ranged from letters by Andrew Carnegie to tickets and photographs—and the search continues today, with sites such as eBay proving helpful new tools.

Digitizing such material is, of course, an ideal way to bring it to the broadest audience, particularly so with sound and video recordings, of which there are nearly 6,000 pieces on 19 different formats (15 of which are becoming “obsolete by the moment, according to Francesconi). So, with the Carnegie Corporation grant, joined by two further grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Susan and Elihu Rose Foundation, that’s what Francesconi and his team set about doing. Already visitors to carnegiehall.org can search for details about any concert—that’s 40,000 events. In time, the plan is to link each entry to related digitized material, beginning with the concert programs. It’s these programs that are, for Francesconi, among the highlights of the archive, fascinating not just for what they say about what was played and by whom, but for what they reveal about the fonts or fashions of an era. And it’s this that perhaps underscores one of the most significant things about Carnegie Hall’s archive: The organization’s history doesn’t stand in isolation—its story is interwoven with that of the culture, society, and city of which it is such a vital part.

“When Carnegie Hall was established, it was at a time when America was still fairly insecure about its own culture,” says Francesconi. “If you take the top 12 industrialists of the day, they were—combined—making more money than European countries. Culturally things still had to come from Europe—it wasn’t any good if it didn’t come from over there. And yet in less than a generation, it became as important to make a Carnegie Hall debut in America as it was to make any other debut in any other concert hall anywhere else on the planet. And so Carnegie Hall acted, in my opinion, in helping America become more secure culturally.”

While the full digital portal is at least a year away, it’s hoped that as much material as possible will be made available in the meantime. From photographs to playbills to workshops by choral legend Robert Shaw, the end result will be a rich insight into Carnegie Hall’s past, and, indeed, into its present. New concerts and new material will constantly be added, in time becoming tomorrow’s historical documents. And not just of the events we automatically associate with Carnegie Hall, either; as well as concerts by today’s leading musicians, the Hall also plays host to such events as Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year Awards, all of which will also form part of the archive too. For the curious casual browser to the specialist historian, it promises to be a resource of really remarkable value.

This article first appeared in Carnegie Hall: 125 Years of an Iconic Music Venue’s Most Remarkable People and Memorable Events, available at carnegiehall.org/125th_Anniversary_Magazine.