Monday, July 11, 2011

British Museum


ow on earth could you archive something so huge and broad as, say, one of the largest museum in the world? Very, very carefully. I had no idea how such a thing could possibly be done. Simplicity is best, wherever possible. I thought we were walking into an archive of everything. Luckily, the British Museum is much smarter than I.

The Central Archive of the British Museum is an archive consisting of materials relating to the Museum as an institution and does not contain archives for each department's collection. Silly me. The archive lives in the labyrinthine maze of tunnels that make up the underbelly of the museum. In a series of rooms, which seem much to small for the weight of information housed within, live materials like minutes from Trustee meetings, day to day information on the staff, finance, exhibition and building records. Original papers and correspondence have been meticulously ordered and bound into huge volumes, designated by year. There are more than 5,000 photographs of Trustees and the buildings. Before I delve deeper, a bit of history...

The land where the Museum now rests originally had perched upon it a house called the Montague House. Montague House held the first collection of books which would later become the British Library. (More on this in a later post.) Whilst telling us the history of this site, the archivist pulled out for us the original 1725 hand painted plans for the museum. Soon enough the collection was too large for the building and Montague House was demolished to make way for the designs drawn up by Sydney Smirk. Again, the archivist just happened to pull out the elegant plans. What is most remarkable about these plans is one can see just from looking at them that this is exactly what the museum looks like now. I don't know if you are familiar with construction plans, but that doesn't always happen as elegantly as it has here. And the British Museum was reborn!

The archive hold staff records including a record of every employee, when they got a raise, and what their salary was. There are records of staff applications and references. One humble footman by the name of Aaron Hays applied to the Museum for the position of an attendant. These are the folks who stroll through the galleries making sure all is well. In addition to his application and letters of reference, Aaron submitted his own drawings of the museums collections. The drawings were elegant chiaroscuro representations of all kinds of objects and sculptures in the museum. I saw them. They were wonderful. Mr. Hays was hired and stayed with the Museum for 30 years. Doesn't that just make you smile?

There are photographs of exhibitions, not to document what was there but rather to document how the museum space was used. There are paint chips and fabric samples for various exhibitions. These Brits are quite thorough.

And perhaps one of the true treasures of this archive is the records of the Reading Room. These records do not reflect the entire history of the reading room but applications and dates of use can be found for such persons as Beatrice Potter, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wild, George Eliot, and Bram Stoker. Yeah, I saw their signatures. One of the archive's regular patrons is writing a book about women users of the Reading Room.

So can you believe that with all of this record keeping that the Museum did not have an archivist until 1970? The work being done here is monumental. The archivists have managed to reorganize and simplify several hundred years of information. Well done.  Much of the success of the current archivists is due to the meticulous organization of previous record keepers which brings us to a messy crossroads. How will we manage the records and correspondence of the digital age? How do you archive millions of e-mails sent out each day by people too lazy or unwilling to keep their own records? The future for keeping this kind of material is murky. Will useful information be lost because we just hit delete?

How did I soothe my anxiety after this discussion?

By seeing this.

*The amazing display cap above is by Jessica Hische, an amazing designer I came across in my perpetual search for awesome design and typography. The letter comes from her Daily Drop Cap project.

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