Collection ID: Archives.Parker.1

Collection context


Parker, James, 1924-
James Parker (1924-2001) began his career as a specialist in European decorative arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1951, was appointed assistant curator in 1954, associate curator in 1962 and curator in 1968. He was appointed Curator Emeritus in 1993, upon his retirement from the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts (ESDA). He specialized in French and English furniture. The James Parker Records include correspondence and memoranda, research notes, clippings and photographic materials that document Parker’s significant contributions to the Museum and to the field of European decorative arts. These records document the internal activities of ESDA and elucidate Parker’s vigorous work on major Museum acquisitions, publications, exhibitions, permanent gallery installations, and most significantly, his tireless research activities.
37.5 Linear feet and (89 boxes, 1030 folders)
Preferred citation:

[Title of item], [date of item], Box [number], Folder [number], James Parker records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives


Scope and Content:

The James Parker records include correspondence, research notes and reference materials, clippings, memoranda, blueprints, and photographic materials that document Parker’s contributions to The Metropolitan Museum of Art and to the field of European decorative arts. These records document the internal activities of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts (ESDA) and elucidate Parker’s vigorous work on major Museum acquisitions, publications, exhibitions, permanent gallery installations, and most significantly, his tireless research activities.

The majority of the records consist of Parker’s extensive index card and research files that demonstrate his extraordinarily thorough and intricate system for documenting the universe of European decorative art and those who collected it. The “Research” series comprises almost eighty percent of the collection, the bulk of which includes Parker’s card file system. Other research materials were classified as either “General” or “Collections,” if the material pertains to specific collections of art objects.

Parker devoted an enormous amount of time to the installation refurbishment, and renovation of permanent gallery spaces. However, the “Galleries” series is the smallest and it encompasses those few documents which were not dispersed among departmental files, and do not pertain to the thirteen Wrightsman Galleries for French decorative arts.

Correspondence can be found throughout every series; however, several professional colleagues at other institutions, including Henry Sorensen, Pierre Verlet, and F.J.B. Watson, with whom Parker corresponded over the course of numerous decades have been placed in a separate “Correspondence” series.

The collection includes a few personal and family documents, including copies of Parker’s military discharge documents, financial records, and birth certificate. Materials relating to many objects eventually acquired by the Museum are present throughout the collection. When it has been possible to identify these, a note including the object accession number has been added to the relevant entry in the Container List, or written on the folder.

All materials were removed from their original card catalog drawers, file folders and notebook binders and rehoused in folders appropriate for their format. For the most part, Parker’s headings were retained; untitled files were supplied with titles, and these appear within brackets in the finding aid. Almost all photographic materials have miscellaneous materials (MM), accession, inventory, or catalogue entry numbers penciled on the back. The research material compiled by Parker range in date and origin throughout the records- and amassing these resources was a decades-long effort. All individual folders within the subseries “Card File” and numerous others within the “Research” series are, therefore, undated. Many research materials, correspondence, memoranda and notations are not originals, but were compiled by Parker in photocopy-form.

The James Parker records represent a fraction of Parker’s correspondence, notes, and reference materials which have also been dispersed among departmental administrative and object file folders and within his personal library materials, now separately cataloged and located in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts library.

Biographical / Historical:

James Parker (1924-2001) began his career as a specialist in European decorative arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1951, was appointed assistant curator in 1954, associate curator in 1962 and curator in 1968. He was appointed Curator Emeritus in 1993, upon his retirement. He specialized in French and English furniture. He was once described by a colleague as a “curator’s curator,” who quietly inspired his associates as his duties developed and expanded over the course of his four-decade career. His work entailed fastidious research, and resulted in copious notes and an abundance of decorative arts research materials that he gathered, organized, and indexed.

Parker’s father, Cortlandt Parker, was a major general in the United States Army and his paternal grandfather, James Parker, served as a general as well. Both had distinguished, decorated careers in the military. His maternal grandfather, Morris Gray, had served as president of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from 1914 to 1924. Parker was born in Boston, but due to his father's military career, his formative years were spent in many places, including Vermont, England, Hawaii, and Massachusetts. After enrolling at Harvard University to study modern European history in 1942, his college career was interrupted by a nearly two-year stint with the 38th Division of Army Field Artillery in the Pacific region. Following the end of World War II, he returned to Harvard and received his degree in 1948.

Heeding the advice of the Metropolitan’s director, Francis Henry Taylor, Parker traveled abroad in 1948 to gain experience by working as an apprentice in museums across Europe. He divided the next two years interning at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, the Louvre, Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. He also briefly assisted at Wiesbaden Collecting Point, a World War II restitution archival depot for recovered art objects in Germany. He enjoyed his time abroad immensely, studying under such luminaries as Pierre Verlet and Sir John Pope-Hennessey, art historians and curators at the Louvre and the Victoria and Albert, respectively. Upon his return to the States in 1951, Parker joined the Department of Renaissance and Modern Art, the decorative arts contingent of the Metropolitan- led by Preston Remington, as a curatorial assistant. In 1954 he was appointed assistant curator and in 1962 associate curator. The department name changed to Renaissance and Post-Renaissance Art (1957-1962) and to Western European Arts (1962-1978) under the leadership of John Goldsmith Phillips. In 1968, Parker was elected curator, a position he held until his retirement in 1993, when he was elected Curator Emeritus. The department continued to evolve, adopting its current nomenclature European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, and appointing Olga Raggio as chair of the department in 1971. She was the first woman to hold the post, and remained in the position until 2001.

Parker’s specialization in French furnishings and interiors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, earned him a guiding role in installing The Wrightsman Galleries, an extraordinary ensemble of period rooms. These spaces, of which were actual rooms taken from historic buildings and some recreations intended to show related works of decorative art in an authentic setting, reflect the unparalleled and encyclopedic collection of French decorative arts of two of the Museum’s greatest patrons, Charles and Jayne Wrightsman. This project occupied Parker for the better part of three decades, as various rooms were installed, refurbished and reinstalled. In 2007, the galleries’ technical infrastructure was modernized, the lighting revamped, and the objects rearranged; yet Parker’s meticulous research and work is still evident, and the galleries are among the Museum’s most renowned installations.

In addition to the French period rooms, Parker supervised the installation of a number of permanent spaces devoted to English and German objects. He also played a crucial role in seamlessly integrating into the galleries collections of objects amassed and donated to the Museum by Marion E. Cohn, Lesley G. and Emma A. Sheafer, Judge Irwin Untermyer, Madame Lilliana W. Teruzzi, Jack and Belle Linsky and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, among others.

Parker wrote scores of articles on subjects ranging from Rococo furniture to gilt-bronze ornaments, as well as assisting in the research and writing for several publications devoted to the Kress, Sheafer and Wrightsman collections. He lectured and served as an adjunct professor at New York University. Parker felt that the decorative arts were, in a sense, an undiscovered realm and he set out to diligently answer questions unasked within the field. His meticulous research efforts and concern for historic interiors and objects led to important findings. It was Parker, for example, who discovered that the Sagredo bedroom windows had originally been located on the opposite wall, but were interchanged during installation and relocation to allow for natural and then electric light. He truly considered the importance of adaptation and original intention with regards to Museum installations, and he attempted to impart that knowledge whenever possible. He always shared his extensive knowledge with his colleagues whether through one-on-one encounters or by way of his meticulously annotated files.

Parker died on June 20, 2001 and was survived by nieces Elizabeth K. Parker and Nancy Gray Parker Wilson, and nephews, Cortlandt Jr. and Stephen Ward; as well as fourteen grandnieces and nephews.

Selected Chronology

1924Born in Boston, MA on January 22nd to Elizabeth Gray, of Boston and Cortlandt Parker, of Newark, New Jersey. Cortlandt Parker’s military career commenced upon his graduation from West Point in 1906. This led to James Parker’s itinerant childhood, and an initial upbringing at military bases Fort Myer, Virginia and Washington D.C.

1931-1933Attended day school in London, England.

1933-1935Attended Stanmore Park in Middlesex, England.

1936Cortlandt Parker stationed at Fort Ethan Allen in Vermont. James Parker attended day school nearby.

1936-1938Attended Punahoe School in Oahu, Hawaii.

1938-1942Attended St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Massachusetts.

1942-1943Enrolled at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1943Enlisted in the Army. Spent two years, seven months and twenty-one days in military service, most of it in field artillery, the branch to which his father devoted his career. Spent nine months in the continental United States (including basic training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina), one year and ten months in the Pacific theater on shipboard, in garrison and in action (from January 29 to August 14, 1945 on Luzon Island, Philippines).

1945Honorably discharged as a Technician, Fifth Grade after twenty-two months of service with the 150th Field Artillery Battalion of the 38th National Guard Division in December. Upon disembarkment, he was greeted by his father, then general commandant in charge of the Southern Defense Command, in Los Angeles, California.

1946Reenrolled at Harvard University as an undergraduate in February.

1948Awarded his bachelor’s degree in modern European history in June.

1948Interviewed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in October. Encouraged by director Francis Henry Taylor to work abroad in European museums to gain experience to qualify for a position in the decorative arts department at the Museum.

1948-1949Served four months as an apprentice at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris and six months in the Département des Objets d’Art of the Louvre Museum under curator Pierre Verlet.

1949Starting in November, worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London for nine months as an apprentice-assistant (six months in the Department of Architecture and Sculpture, two months in the Department of Furniture and Woodwork, and one month in the Department of Ceramics).

1950Spent July to September at the Central Collecting Point in Wiesbaden, Germany, where works of art confiscated by the Third Reich had been sorted and dispersed.

1950Relocated to New York, New York.

1951Employed at the Metropolitan as an assistant in the Renaissance and Modern Art Department on January 2nd.

1954Appointed assistant curator on July 1st.

1962Appointed associate curator on July 1st.

1968Appointed curator on June 13th.

1993Retired at age 69 on June 30th.

1993Elected Curator Emeritus, Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts on September 14th.

2001Died of cancer at age seventy-seven on June 20th.

Works Consulted

Draper, James David. “A life at The Met: James Parker and the collecting of Italian furniture.” Apollo, January 1993, 20-24.

Dulling, Corey. “James Parker, at 77; was Met curator for 4 decades.” Boston Globe, June 24, 2001, A25.

Johnson, Ken. “Gilding the Ancien Régime.” New York Times, November 9, 2007, E44. Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.). Period rooms in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (New York: The Museum : H.N. Abrams, 1996).

Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.). “Recent Deaths : James Parker, Curator Emeritus, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts.” The biweekly: A newsletter for the Staff and Volunteers of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, July 6, 2001, 6.

Oral History Project interview with James Parker, August 9, 12, 19, 1994, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.

Parker, James. “J. Parker’s Report on his World War II Army Service 7/3/87.” Photocopy, Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Vogel, Carol. “James Parker, 77, Curator of European Decorative Arts at the Met.” New York Times, June 23, 2001, A11.

Custodial history:

The James Parker records were transferred from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts to the Museum Archives in 2013.


The James Parker Records are organized in the following five series: I. Research, II. Galleries, III. Wrightsman Collection [Museum staff access only], IV. Correspondence, and V. Biographical Materials.

Resources are arranged alphabetically by subject, personal name, or corporate name. The original arrangement of the series “Research” was maintained during processing. In all other series, dated materials were arranged in ascending chronological order.

Series I. Research I.A. Card File I.B. General I.C. Collections Series II. Galleries Series III. Wrightsman Collection [Museum staff access only] Series IV. Correspondence Series V. Biographical Materials

Rules or conventions:
Describing Archives: A Content Standard



Collection is open for research. Series I, boxes 71-72; Series III; and Series V, box 89 are open to research by Museum staff only.


Consult Archives staff regarding permission to quote or reproduce.


[Title of item], [date of item], Box [number], Folder [number], James Parker records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives

1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10028, United States