Hirsch Library History

The Early Years

In 1927, MFAH director James Chillman introduced the idea of building a library at the museum. He stated that "the purpose of the library was to furnish information for judging the arts." He reported that the library was "proving quite popular—particularly in view of the fact that it is not of a circulating character. Almost any bright day there may be found a generous sprinkling of readers—housewives, professionals and Rice Institute students." (Post Dispatch, January 22, 1928)

The library was situated in the basement of the west wing of the museum, and furnished with Windsor chairs and a single reading table. A public fund drive for money for books started the library's collection; thereafter, a budget for the library was included within the museum's budget each year. In 1960, the MFAH hired its first professionally trained librarian.

By the 1970s, the library's collection had outgrown its space, and in 1974 a new area for the library was created in the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe addition to the museum. The modern, spacious reading room adjacent to the Alice Pratt Brown sculpture garden was welcoming to the staff as well as the public.


Maurice and Winifred Hirsch

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In September of 1981, an endowment was established for the library by two long-time museum supporters: General Maurice and Winifred Busby Hirsch. This generous bequest was designated to be used for, "the maintenance, repair, embellishment of the present or subsequently substituted premises of the museum library and for the purchase of fixtures, furnishings, books, manuscripts, book illustrations, periodicals, appropriate art objects and any other use pertinent to a museum library." (letter from Maurice Hirsch to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, dated September 23, 1981). The library was named the Hirsch Library that year, as a lasting tribute to these two museum patrons.

The Hirsch family had been involved with the MFAH since it opened in 1924. General Maurice Hirsch's father, Jules Hirsch, was an early contributor to the museum building fund that year. In 1947 Maurice and Winifred were married, and became active participants as a couple in the city's cultural life. In the early 1950s they carried on the family's support of the museum with generous financial contributions and donations of works of art to the museum's collection. Maurice became a museum trustee in 1960. Winifred played an active role in the museum's auxiliary and volunteer groups, and from 1954 to 1955 she was the first chair of the "Art Cart" program that took works of art from the museum to Houston's Veterans Administration Hospital.

The Hirsches traveled the world many times, and during a trip to Egypt in 1952, they bought several Egyptian art objects for the museum's collection. The most treasured of their gifts to the collection is an outstanding Greek vase, or Hydria (470–460 BC) by the Painter of the Yale Oinochoe. This lovely black vase depicts scenes of daily life painted in red.

General Hirsch died while on a trip to Hong Kong on August 5, 1983, after a lifetime of work as a lawyer and philanthropist. Mrs. Hirsch continued to actively support the Hirsch Library until her death in 1990 aboard her yacht, Athena. Mrs. Hirsch bequeathed her jewelry collection to the Hirsch Library, and its sale at Christie's, New York, on April 25, 1991, added significantly to the library's endowment.


Hirsch Library Renovation and Expansion

By 1989, the library's stacks were overflowing. A renovation in September of that year added high-density compact shelving and reduced the number of periodicals in storage, enabling the library collection to double in size. This was a temporary measure, however, with a plan for an expansion of the library scheduled to coincide with the opening of the new Audrey Jones Beck building in 2000.

In 1991, the library subscribed to its first online periodical index, Art Index, which greatly simplified searching for citations to art periodicals. Meanwhile, a plan for the library’s own online system was in the works. By 1998, the library established its first fully automated online catalog, which provided access to the library's holdings at your fingertips—both within the library and via the Internet.

In the fall of 2000, a renovation of the Hirsch Library began that would significantly increase its physical size from 3,900 to 8,400 square feet. The library opened to the public in May of 2001 with an elegantly enlarged reading room on the main floor of the museum overlooking the Alice Pratt Brown Garden, and a downstairs area housing the main stacks, vertical files, rare book collection, and cataloging offices. The original space on the main floor was redesigned to incorporate an online resources room, an expanded current periodicals area, and work space for the library staff.


Kitty King Powell Library and Study Center at Bayou Bend

Shortly after the completion of Hirsch Library’s new facility in 2001, Tropical Storm Allison caused significant damage to the Bayou Bend Visitor Center, necessitating the temporary relocation of 5,000 books and periodicals from the Bayou Bend Library to the Hirsch Library at the MFAH, where it received full-time supervision and maintenance by library staff.

In September of 2010, the completion of the Lora Jean Kilroy Visitor and Education Center and the establishment of the newly named Kitty King Powell Library and Study Center at Bayou Bend enabled the return of the Bayou Bend Library and Hogg Family Collections to their proper home. Now staffed with its own librarian and library assistant, the Powell Library and Study Center is available to the general public, docents, and staff in a location only a short walk from the actual artworks and artifacts on display at Bayou Bend. Kitty King Powell’s support of this new library facility reflects her love of libraries and her years of service as a Bayou Bend docent.


Today

Today, more than 7,000 patrons visit the Hirsch and Powell Libraries annually. The libraries provide reference assistance and bibliographic instruction to museum professional staff, docents, and members, as well as to college and university art history students, teachers, and the general public. Please contact us to arrange a tour of one of the libraries, or if you need research assistance.