Benton Vaults Unlocked


Noor Tamari PO ’22
Guest Writer

The colorful pastels of Ludwig Kirchner, somber engravings of Francisco de Goya, and technical precision of Rico Lebrun adorn the racks of the archival vaults at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College. Although the museum’s harsh exterior seems cold and distant, its interior invites a space of contemplation, education, and appreciation.
Located at 120 W Bonita Avenue Claremont, CA, the Benton Museum of Art houses more than 16,000 works belonging to the permanent collection of Pomona College. Ranging from Native American beadwork, to Qing Dynasty snuff bottles, and Guerrilla Girls graphics, the museum attracts students and Claremont residents alike due to its traveling exhibitions and impressive space.

That being said, it is not only its glittery pink walls that house the work of Sadie Barnette, or its student-curated exhibitions that are worth a visit, but rather, its archival vaults. Tucked behind two metal doors and accessed only by appointment or with the help of museum staff, the Benton’s vaults invite their visitors into a world of endless bounty with three distinct archival rooms at the hands of its visitors.

Climate controlled and meticulously organized, the Benton’s vaults are categorized into three rooms: the paintings vault, the papers vault, and the Native American Collection. Objects that don’t fit into these distinct categories are placed wherever seems most appropriate. A plaster statue of Discobolus, for example, stands proudly in the paintings vault.

The first time I entered into the vaults was during my sophomore year at Pomona College. At that point, I had yet to declare my major and parse through my intellectual curiosities. The Benton was not yet open to the public, but a class field trip on border art photography warranted a special tour of the museum’s extensive photography collection. Laid out across the tables of the papers vaults were images by Danny Lyon, Gordon Abbott, and Christina Fernandez.

Now, almost two years later, and open to the public, the table that once held my classroom photographs is replaced with rotating works and images for different classroom visits. Rotating between geological specimens, sketches of the Prometheus mural at Frary Dining Hall, and oil on canvases by Kara Walker, the vaults are colored by the sketches and shades of the artwork it holds. Steve Comba, the registrar of the museum, accentuates the vault experience with his astounding knowledge of the collection and its institutional history.

The vaults at the Benton, therefore, become a layered repository of information. Not only do they archive the work itself, but they also serve as a space of knowledge formation and curiosity. It is only at the vaults where you can cut through time and space, physically looking at and touching (gloves required) pieces of history.

Access to the vaults available by emailing Steve Comba at:

Image Source: Los Angeles Times

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