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Research

Joseph Cornell Study Center

A photograph of Joseph Cornell in his studio

Joseph Cornell, ca. 1940, photograph courtesy of Smithsonian
American Art Museum

A box of working materials for Medici Slot Machine

Box of working materials for Medici Slot Machine, Joseph Cornell Study Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum


One of America’s most inventive and influential artists, Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) was a premier assemblagist who elevated box construction to a major art form in the 20th century. Searching New York libraries, museums, theaters, bookshops, and antique stalls, Cornell acquired thousands of printed pictorial and textual ephemera and three-dimensional artifacts that would serve as both inspiration and raw material for his boxes, collages, and films.

It is these source materials and studio effects that comprise the Joseph Cornell Study Center. The core of the collection arrived in 1978, a gift from the artist’s sister and brother-in-law (Mr. and Mrs. John A. Benton) and the artist’s estate (Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation). Included in the collection are handwritten and typed manuscripts, correspondence, newspaper clippings, maps, photographs, postcards, prints, theater playbills, stamps, and assorted dime store trinkets and other found objects such as bird’s nests, ceramic figurines, clay pipes, cordial glasses, costume jewelry, marbles, shells, children’s toys, and board games. The Study Center also includes the artist’s personal library (over 2,500 titles ranging from rare eighteenth-century French texts to Little Golden Books from the 1950s) and his record albums.

Using the Study Center

Beginning in 2017, with generous funding from the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, a three-year project is underway to better organize, re-house, catalog, and describe the study center holdings. The Study Center will remain open to students, researchers, and the general public by advance appointment. To make an appointment or send a query about the collection, please contact us by mail, email, or phone:


Joseph Cornell Study Center
Research & Scholars Center
Smithsonian American Art Museum
PO Box 37012, MRC 970
Washington, DC 20013-7012
Phone: 202-633-8339
Email: AmericanArtCornellStudy@si.edu