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Laurence Sickman Papers

Identifier: MSS-001

Scope and Contents Note

The Laurence Sickman Papers, 1848-1988 consist of letters, journals, notes, photographs, postcards, address books, personal financial documents, booklets, memorabilia, honorary degrees, family correspondence, account books, scrapbooks, research notes, manuscripts, and military service records. The papers document his personal and professional life as well as some aspects of his academic life, and contain some records pertaining to his mother, Mary "May" R. Sickman and his friend Thomas Handforth.


  • Creation: 1848-1989
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1932-1987


Restrictions on Access

Open to researchers. Appointments are necessary for the use of manuscript and archival collections.

Conditions Governing Use Note

Notification of intent to publish, quote, or cite archival materials is required. Contact the archives via

Biographical / Historical Note

Laurence Chalfant Stevens Sickman was born in Denver, CO, on August 27, 1906 to May Ridding (Fuller) and David Vance Sickman. He attended Colorado State Preparatory School in Boulder and was enrolled from 1925 until 1928 at the University of Colorado before being awarded a scholarship to attend Harvard University by the Rocky Mountain Harvard Club. Sickman attended Harvard from 1928 until 1930. He received an A.B., cum laude, from Harvard in 1930 and was awarded a Harvard-Yenching Fellowship for study in Peiping. He remained in China until February 1935.

Sickman had been a protégé of Langdon Warner, a noted professor of Asian art, while at Harvard. In 1930, Warner was appointed advisor in Asian art to the University Trustees of the William Rockhill Nelson Trust who were in the process of acquiring art to be housed in the yet to be constructed William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Art. Warner contacted Laurence Sickman prior to his arrival in China on a buying expedition for the Trust to solicit his assistance in making purchases. In a letter dated May 1931 from Langdon Warner to J.C. Nichols (one of the trustees), Warner states in reference to Mr. Sickman: "His taste and judgment are as good as mine and he speaks Chinese better than I. After a year or two more training I shall suggest his name to the Director of the K.C. Museum as prime timber for an Oriental Curator."

In 1934, the University Trustees offered Sickman a position as the Curator of Oriental Art. He assumed those duties in June 1935. During the period 1935-41, he was engaged in a variety of activities for the Museum including lectures, speaking engagements, and the myriad of duties and responsibilities connected with the large collection of Asian art. He also taught several summer seminars at Harvard.

With the advent of World War II, Sickman offered his services to the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) in 1942 and was commissioned a first lieutenant that same year, was promoted to Captain in 1943 and finally attained the rank of Major in 1945 before being discharged in 1946. While in the USAAF he was trained in combat intelligence and served a variety of posts before being assigned to the 14th Air Force in China. His primary responsibility there was to process all intelligence related to tactical and strategic objectives and to supervise the collection and dissemination of intelligence on enemy anti-aircraft defenses. At the end of the war he was assigned to General MacArthur's headquarters in Tokyo where he had some responsibility for surveying monuments, sites and collections of cultural value in Korea and China.

After his return to the Museum in 1946, Sickman was appointed Vice-Director. In 1953, with the retirement of Paul Gardner, his long years of service, and reputation as a scholar, were rewarded with appointment as the Museum's second Director. In addition to his duties as Director, Sickman continued his scholarly activities publishing, with A.C. Soper, the book that would become a classic in the field of Chinese art, The Art and Architecture of China.

In 1973 he was awarded the fifth Charles Lang Freer Medal by the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, for "Distinguished contributions to the knowledge and understanding of Oriental civilizations as reflected in the arts." He also received several honorary degrees and other accolades and remained active as a lecturer, teacher and consultant. He retired in 1978. Sickman sereved as Director Emeritus and he continued his scholarly pursuits until his death on May 7, 1988.


19.62 Linear Feet (In 28 letter document cases, 4 half letter document cases, 22 plastic photo boxes, and 3 oversize flat boxes.)

Language of Materials






This collection contains correspondence, study materials, journals, address books, programs, memorabilia, teaching material, military documents and photographs and negatives documenting his personal, academic and professional life between 1930 and 1988, one item per year from 1848, 1856, 1859, 1898, 1901 and 1903, and a record book of personal finances contains entries from 1989 in someone else's handwriting.


The collection has been divided into nine series: Correspondence, 1931-88; Personal Files, 1848-1989; Nelson Gallery Activities, 1931-1988; Photographs, 1926-83; Scholarly Activities, 1929-88; Military Service, 1942-83; May R. Sickman Papers, 1926-50; Thomas Handforth Estate, 1926-42; Artifacts, undated.

Immediate Source of Acquisiton Note

Gift; accession numbers associated with this collection are 1999-02, 2002-02, 2002-04.

Accruals Note

Additions to the collection are not anticipated.

Finding Aid of the Laurence Sickman Papers, MSS 001
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Archives Repository

4525 Oak St.
Kansas City MO 64111 United States