Friday, July 13, 2012

Someone Please Stop Putting the Archives in the Basement

When in doubt, the archives often find themselves in either a basement or an attic. Now an attic is the worst, for all the changes in temperature and humidity have a major impact on the documents and their preservation. Basements can have similar issues with temperature and humidity, but are often cooler than attics (that whole hot air rises, cool air falls thing) and so it's not that much of an issue. Still, people and organizations tend to put their archives in the basement because it doesn't garner a high level of attention and importance.

Well. at the British Museum, the archives of the institution are in.....the basement. When one walks up to the building, they see this beautiful 19th century building with classical undertones all over the facade. You walk inside, and the center of the building has recently been transformed to adapt to the 21st century needs of the museum, for it now has a huge glass dome that holds the temporary exhibits, the gift shop, and several small cafes. A glass domed ceiling towers above you and one can know the weather outside by just looking up.

However, to get to the archives, one must leave the large dome and head into the depths of the building. You  walk down steps and head through a heavy steel door that takes you to the underbelly of the original 1850s building. Stephanie Clarke, our guide and the museum's archivist, takes us through the hallways until we happen upon this door to my right. It reminds one of a submarine.

Stephanie took us into the archives and gave us a great overview of the holdings. She joined the museum about six years ago, after the museum had hired an archivist who was, well, not trained to be an archivist. Suffice it to say, Stephanie had a lot of work to do and she's been able to get a great handle on the collection during the past six years. Now I could go into all of the really exciting aspects of archives and use big words, like provenance, and record series, and finding aids, but I will try to put explain what they have and what Stephanie has done to, in a sense, organize the collection. 

The central archives of the British Museum holds the administrative history of the museum. Each department in the museum takes care of their own collection so Stephanie only has to oversee one area. This administrative area is split up into several records series, so they are easier to access my researchers. They are as follows: trustees minutes, staff records, finances, building records, temporary exhibitions, excavations, and the round reading room. While we didn't get to see all of these, we did get to see examples from a few of them. The trustees minutes are very important for reference inquiries, for they give evidence for all of the items donated to, or purchased by, the museum. They also include correspondence with different people who had an impact on the museum and its growth. The building records include both plans and deeds of the building. The records of temporary exhibitions includes binders filled with information regarding the make up, construction, and layout of each exhibition. All are very important to the history of the exhibition as well as allowing curators to see what was done in the past.

The archives of the British Museum are small but filled with valuable information. The most upsetting aspect of this is that there is no finding aid or online catalog of the collection. Currently, the only listing of the collection is located in an in-house Excel spreadsheet. However, there are now plans in the budget to put together an online catalog so hopefully that will be available to researchers in the next two years. There is a lifetime of work do to in these archives, but they are extremely important to the history and future of the British Museum. 

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