Thursday, July 7, 2011

British Museum Archive

Yesterday we had a tour of the Archives of the British Museum, led by the Archivist Stephanie Clarke.  Stephanie began by informing us that the Archive is the storage place for the central archives of the Museum.  Each of the eight collecting departments retain their own records and libraries, the Archive only keeps items which relate to the Museum as a whole.  Stephanie said that she typically receives 20-30 inquiries a week through phone and email, and that 5-6 people come in and ask questions in person.  The typical patrons are academics, students, and folks interested in genealogical research.  She told us that over half of the patrons have a specific question in mind and know exactly what they are looking for.

Stephanie is the only archivist for the Museum, and is also the first professionally trained archivists to be hired at the Museum.  As such she had a lot of reorganization and consolidation to do when she first arrived.  The archivist position was created in 1975, but there was no overarching plan or organizing structure.  There were 117 records series according to past systems (basically each box was its own series even if multiple boxes contained similar items), but Stephanie resorted it and narrowed it down to 6 proper series: trustees, staff, finance, exhibitions, building/property, and the reading room.  She then told us a bit about each collection.

The trustee records contain information on anything and everything.  Literally everything that was mentioned at a meeting went down in the minutes: which employees were late to work, who should get a raise, who was out sick etc.  The records contain letters, reports and all sorts of other information related to the meetings.  They have all been very well indexed, it’s easiest to search by date since all the bound volumes are in chronological order. 

The staff records were interesting because from 1850-1950 the Archive has a sampling of staff applications, including reference letters and employee contracts.  The staff records are typically used for genealogical requests, and Stephanie is always happy to help people discover new things about their ancestors.  The building records have some interesting items which predate the Museum.  They have the deed from a 1694 change of ownership of the land which the Museum later bought.  The seals are almost completely intact and the medieval handwriting was fascinating to glimpse.  The Archive has 250 items by Sidney Smirke, chief architect for the Museum, including building plans and correspondence. 

The exhibition records needed the most serious and urgent attention when Stephanie arrived.  There were approximately 300 black design books from temporary exhibits which ran from the 1960’s-1990’s.  They were incredibly detailed with photographs, labels, paint swatches and fabric samples.  They were not in archival folders, and when Stephanie tried to remove items they stuck to the plastic.  All the items have now been moved over to acid free archival housing, but the whole collection could have been lost had it continued to sit in the folders. 

The final series that we got a glimpse of was the reading room records.  The Archive has records from 1790-1970.  It was considered a prestigious honor to be accepted by the Director as a reader, and many famous people applied.  From 1890-1970 all of the applications have been preserved, including reference letters.  It’s an amazing resource for anyone doing genealogical or historical research about the reading room.  The sign in registers have all been kept, for example Stephanie showed us Karl Marx’s entry for 1877, with his signature on the line.  These records are very complicated to search through, and Stephanie normally answers inquiries about them herself without letting the public view the books.  Unless you know a specific person visited on a specific day it’s very hard to track them down.  Stephanie then passed around and let us hold the application forms of Beatrice Potter, Rudyard Kipling, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among others.  After a few questions we all thanked Stephanie and headed off to visit the Museum.


No comments:

Post a Comment