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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why Archival Collections Matter in a Museum!

My goal! (image from the University of Maryland Archives)

Part of the role of the museum archivist is justification. The cultural history of museums, as institutions, relies fully on item level description. Often, this is how the museum archives were organized prior to the hiring of an archival professional. Item level description, for archival records, overwhelms the scholar with unnecessary detail. Knowing that groups of records share certain characteristics, collective description relates the more important aspects of the archival material without repetition.

Deborah Wythe writes in her seminal book "Museum Archives- An Introduction:" (2004) "one of the greatest administrative challenges a museum archivist faces is the pressure towards item description. Museums thrive on item-level description. A ceremonial pot containing seventeen pebbles will be described as such, and each pebble receives accession numbers so that they can be tracked. Even in the context of the other, related vessels, it is most important as a single, unique item. You may be encouraged to 'catalog' individual items this way, a method that does not fully exploit the full power of archival description. A cubic foot of correspondence files is not equivalent to one pot, or several hundred pots, and an important part of your job will be to justify describing archival collections as groups, not items."

Facing the daunting challenge of the Norman Rockwell Museum Archives, where literally none of the records were organized according archival standard, is an immense undertaking. Acting as an archival detective, I must discover the provenance and "find" their corresponding collection. This is the exciting part of my job. For instance, some collections make sense in regards to donor and other collections are based on item type, others to provenance (Example: Norman Rockwell Photographic Print Collection, Norman Rockwell Collected Correspondence, Norman Rockwell Museum Moving Image Collection). These are the meaningful relationships that make archival descriptions for archival material non-negotiable in a museum environment.
An archival digital image, as an item floating in collections management software may be searchable via item type, name, accession number, or donor. But, this item makes much more sense if we can view it based on archival hierarchy. When we see the image with other images in the manner of organization the creator of the records intended, a story begins to emerge. In the particular case of Norman Rockwell, his archival material as collections allows a researcher to see his development as an artist; hence, new revisionist viewpoints emerge beyond traditional understandings of history, contributing to an evolving discourse.

Archival collections remind us that history is interrelated, not set in stone, and always an interpretation.

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