Columbia Libraries Receives Support to Create Finding Aid for Unique Collection of Puppets and Masks

NEW YORK, June 12, 2008 With support from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) of Columbia University will make accessible the nearly 450 puppets and 138 masks from the former Brander Matthews Dramatic Museum at Columbia, which are now housed at the RBML.

The project will inventory and re-house the collection, and create a finding aid that describes and inventories the materials as a group and that links each entry to a scanned image of the artifact. Creating an image-based finding aid will serve two related purposes: making the existence of the collection known to researchers in general, and facilitating the harvesting of information from specialists about individual artifacts.

The finding aid for the Dramatic Museum puppets and masks will be made available through Columbia’s new Archival Collections Portal (, which provides easy access to primary source materials across the Columbia Libraries’ system.

The puppets come from around the world: Africa, Burma, China, England, France, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Thailand, Turkey, Russia, and the U.S. There are 40 large (over five feet tall) shadow puppets and approximately 406 other puppets, including three oversize marionettes made by the prominent artist Remo Bufano in the 1930s. Most were collected by the 1930s; many date from the nineteenth century. The masks have a similar range: they come from Africa, Ceylon, Europe, Japan, Java, Mexico, North America, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

James Brander Matthews (1852–1929), America’s first professor of dramatic literature, created a Dramatic Museum at Columbia in 1911 to supplement his teaching. He insisted that material objects and images were crucial to understanding drama, and that theater knew no geographical or chronological bounds. The differences in national style visible on the contemporary stage had their origins, he argued, in ancient local rituals and religious practice. So in addition to considerable manuscript collections and a large collection of printed books, the Dramatic Museum included the puppets and masks, 34,500 theatrical portraits (cartes de visite, cabinet photos, lithographs, and publicity photographs); 2,350 speech recordings; 35,000 eighteenth-, nineteenth- , and twentieth-century playbills; approximately 600 artworks, including costume and scenic designs and posters; 12 models of historical theaters; and 29 stage sets.

The Museum was formally dissolved and its collections dispersed in 1971. By the 1990s, the collections had all gravitated to RBML. While RBML found it relatively easy to assimilate the archives, individual manuscripts, and printed books, the Museum materials have been more of a challenge.

The global range of the collection makes it an excellent teaching tool, which has been used to advantage by Columbia’s thriving programs in the dramatic arts. In addition, several museums have borrowed puppets from RBML for exhibitions.

John Bell and Sharon Mazer, who mounted an exhibition of the Dramatic Museum’s puppets and masks in Columbia’s Wallach Gallery in 1989, noted in their introduction: “What is striking about Matthews’ concept of theatre study is his unusual (for the day) understanding of theatre as a combination of all the arts, his insistence on regarding theatre as fully realized only in production, and, finally his understanding of the importance of mask and puppet theatre to all dramatic traditions the world over.”

Columbia University Libraries/Information Services is one of the top five academic research library systems in North America. The collections include over 10 million volumes, over 100,000 journals and serials, as well as extensive electronic resources, manuscripts, rare books, microforms, maps, graphic and audio-visual materials. The services and collections are organized into 25 libraries and various academic technology centers. The Libraries employs more than 550 professional and support staff. The website of the Libraries at is the gateway to its services and resources.

The Rare Book & Manuscript Library owns over 600,000 rare books in some 20 book collections and almost 26 million manuscripts in nearly 2,600 separate manuscript collections. It is particularly strong in English and American literature and history, classical authors, children’s literature, education, mathematics and astronomy, economics and banking, photography, the history of printing, New York City politics, librarianship, and the performing arts. Individual collections are as eclectic as they are extensive. For additional information about the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, please call 212-854-5153 or see:


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