Monday, 10 August 2015

British Museum Archives: Missing one catalogue for a corporate archive

Dateline: July 2, 2015
Place: British Museum Archives
Time: 9:30 - 11:30 a.m.
Temperature: 34 degrees C
Song of the morning: Head over heels by Tears for Fears

The British Museum is one of London’s main attraction and is filled with national and international cultural treasures such as the Rosetta Stone. Just as fascinating as the significant artefacts housed within this public institution is the museum itself as a public institution. And yet, researchers wanting to study this corporate history have a challenge: at present no suitable finding aid exists to facilitate this work. 

This gap reinforces my understanding that records have to be managed properly in order to be useful sources of information.

Where's Martha? Look for the hat ...
Francesca Miller is the current archivist at the British Museum and responsible for organizing records that date back to the opening of the museum in 1759. This administrative collection holds a wide variety of materials related to the business and transactions of the museum over its 262-year history including "original papers" or committee minutes, building plans dating to the 18th century, images of museum founders, letters and present (i.e., donated) books as well as human resources or staff records. 

Francesca Miller (left), archivist at the British Museum,
showing us a letter book (April 1824 - February 1835).
Collectively, these corporate materials represent a rich trove of documentary and other evidence that can help us "learn from the past" (Eulenberg, 1984, p. 21).

However, when Francesca became the museum's archivist in 2012, she knew she had inherited records whose organization lacked "coherence." She is the first professional archivist to be hired into this position and thus while the collection does reflect "the scope of the collecting body," it does not function optimally as an archive (Eulenberg, 1984, p. 22). 

For example, Francesca has found that there is no "logic" to the collection policies so she is unsure why some records have been kept (e.g., the staff records) and others seem to be missing (e.g., certain documents related to donations).  Provenance is an issue for some items and others have not been conserved properly (e.g., some documents are in bound volumes and should not be). 
Materials in the archives are not filed
using standard archival descriptions.

Moreover, Francesca is concerned about the lack of a catalogue that meets archival standards so that materials are properly documented and can be found relatively easily. As such, her highest priority at present is to develop a set of finding aids that meet the International Standard Archival Description (General) (i.e., ISAD [G]) and are based on the core principles of provenance and respect for original order.  

In 2013 she instituted an archival database program which will eventually allow her to produce a proper catalogue for the collection. In producing a finding aid system, she will be ensuring access to important evidence for all those interested in the corporate history of the museum.

The preservation of corporate records is an issue that I think is very important. I could not have written my thesis on unions at Carleton University without access to the corporate records and I was very dismayed when, in 2011, university administrators made the decision to not fill the position of corporate archivist when the incumbent left. That collection was organized according to Canadian archival standards and provided me with information that I needed to understand this history and although the position is finally being filled in 2015, there are now four years when crucial materials were not collected.

While there are issues surrounding archives in general, such as a traditional privileging of documentary evidence (Mckemmish & Piggott, 2014, p. 111), nonetheless I believe that proper records management is critical to ensuring that scholarship can be done on important areas of human endeavour.

Eulenberg, J. N. (1984). The Corporate Archives: Management Tool and Historical 
      Resource. The Public Historian, 6(1), 20-37.

McKemmish, S., & Piggott, M. (2013). Toward the Archival Multiverse: Challenging the 
      Binary  Opposition of the Personal and Corporate Archive in Modern Archival Theory
      and Practice. Archivaria, 76, 111-144.

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