Thursday, July 8, 2010

British Museum Archives

July 7: British Museum Entrance

In the ongoing bus versus Underground battle: bus won (by about 5 minutes today)

Honestly, after Vicky introduced me to the buses I prefer them as a mode of transportation. Most of the time they are less crowded and you can really see the city, rather than moving underneath it. While the Underground has historical importance (as a bomb shelter during the Battle of Britain, 1940) the lack of any air conditioning at stations or on the train can make it a wilting experience in any temperature over 70 degrees. The bus does have drawbacks: there is a distinct danger of dying by falling down the stairs from the upper deck as drivers stop suddenly, motion sickness, and of course--traffic, but it is the preferred mode of transportation among a select number of BSP LIS students.

Today's site visit was to the British Museum and the British Museum Archives. We arrived at 10am to meet Stephanie Clarke, lone arranger (head and only permanent staff member) for the British Museum archives. (I cannot use the abbreviation BM for impolite reasons so I will be using BritM.) We walked from the main entrance gallery, back into the staff only section of the museum and then came to the door below:

There is something magical/special/appealing about the idea of a door: in literature it leads to so many wonderful or scary things--it is a metaphor for life, change, thought, education, enlightenment, closure--and physically is the difference between here and a potentially unknown there. Who knows what it might lead to? OK, enough metaphysical musing...

This door opened into the British Museum Archives where Stephanie showed us part of the collection and explained how their records are organized. This was our first truly behind-the-scenes tour. By that I mean a tour that would not be part of a regular tourist group's itinerary.

The archive began in 1753 (when the Museum was founded) and includes permanent records related to the museum's functions. The British Museum Archives is truly an institutional archive and it's records include "minutes of meetings of the Museum’s Trustees, departmental reports on acquisitions and administration, policy and financial records." Most records related to museum objects are held with the various curatorial departments. ( They also have some collections, library reader cards and applications for entry, related to the British Library (which was established as an independent institution in 1973). The records are not available online: researcher access is by appointment through the Paul Hamlyn Library.

I think I most appreciated the visit because Stephanie's description of her work when she arrived at the archive provided a real world example for why archival principles are necessary. She took a collection that 117 records series and distilled it down to six (6). Yes, that was 117--a new series added every time a new box of materials would arrive. Without strong training in these principles and practices it would have been nearly impossible to make sense of the vast array of material.

In addition, the archivist has been instrumental in creating a records management and retention schedule for new materials ensuring that the BritM Archives collection best represents the history, working life, and collections of the British Museum. For more on their holdings there is portal through the British Museum. Of course the idea of deaccessioning is controversial, and often considered heretical--no one wants to throw away anything that might be useful later, but this collection illustrates how important it is to consider archival principles when collecting and arranging material, especially when laws are written that prevent anything that is accessioned to the collection (1753-present) from being disposed of in the future.

In terms of materials themselves, I was astonished by the bound volumes of correspondence--not only that the BritM had their own bindery that did the work, but thinking as a historian, what a treasure to find all of the materials together--as an archivist I could not help but shudder at the potential preservation issues created by the diversity of materials, the paste and glue used on the letters, and the original original order disruptions. As if I need more evidence that the fields are diametrically opposed despite working with the same documentation. And of course, my eye was drawn to the volume "Acts Relating to the British Museum"--photographs of collections, T.S. Eliot's and Karl Marx's signatures, exploded WWII ordnance and I want to thumb through a list of Parliamentary Acts--I really do need to work with political sources in some form or fashion.

1 comment:

  1. Holy moly, with laws like that the records management and acquisition policy is ESSENTIAL. :O

    What an amazing opportunity! I'm happy you're getting to go to the UK this summer, after having had some archival training for a new perspective. We still miss you of course!