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Bringing the Gernsheim collection to The University of Texas at Austin

Helmut and Alison Gernsheim

Helmut and Alison Gernsheim hanging an exhibition at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, 1963. Unidentified Photographer.

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In the 1950s, the Gernsheims began searching for a permanent home for their photography collection, and after a series of negotiations, Harry Ransom made them an offer they couldn't refuse.

ROY FLUKINGER: I think in 1955 is when he writes his first paper about wanting to help set up or help found a museum. And he starts approaching other institutions in England to begin with about taking this on. At this time, as it happens in the history of photography, not many institutions are recognizing photography as an art form. Things like the British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museum all say, "No, we're not interested." Or "It's not an art." Or, "It's a craft."

So, in the '50s, he starts also offering it beyond England and approaches a number of German institutions and a number of European institutions to see if they might be interested. He gets an offer from a private consortium in, of all places, Detroit, Michigan. A company called Showcase, which has a building that they're renovating, and they offer him basically a floor on it to be the Gernsheim museum of photography. And he accepts.

He and Alison move to Detroit together with the bulk of the collection, and they're given keys to the city by the mayor, given a nice reception, put up in a fine hotel. But the institution is only an empty building, and there's not a great deal of capital involved in it, and the people who got him over there are trying to desperately raise the funds while they're doing it.

In the middle of all this, he conceives of the idea of doing this massive exhibition. It is a huge success. The publication is significant. One of the people who hears about this is [Harry] Ransom, who approaches him through a book dealer, Lew Feldman of the House of El Dieff, [who] is his book buyer at the time for Ransom, and they start negotiating with him. At the same time, other offers are made to him in Germany again. He starts weighing the various offers back and forth.

The exhibit closes. He's still stuck in Detroit with the collection. Alison and he are both getting sick of it. He had first turned UT down, along with the other institutions, but they come back with another offer. It's not exactly what he wanted. He wanted to have an institution that would basically be set up solely for his museum. He wanted to be the curator and director. He wanted to have an established budget to continue to build on it, and work with it.

Ransom offered him a lump sum amount, outright, of money. And if he wanted to, he could come and be the director, but the rest of it would be part of the overall what is becoming the Ransom Center—not the Ransom Center at the time, the Humanities Research Center. And so Helmut considers it, and finally they decide to accept the offer. At the last minute, he decides he doesn't want to move to Texas. He's heard too many things about Texas being this wild place with cattle and cactus and cowboys and all sorts of things like that, and he never comes to see us. He just decides, "No."

So, he and Alison decide they're going to retire to Switzerland with the money. Signed the deal, shipped the collection here, say goodbye to it. It's a strong emotional thing for him to do, to give it up. To "give up the child," as he says, but he did, and they retired to Switzerland. And the collection comes here in 1963, and that is sort of the way by which it evolved and came.


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