Wednesday, July 7, 2010
British Museum General Archive
Image source: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/research_facilities/archives.aspx
Today, a group of Library and Information Science students visited the British Museum's General Archive. I am not very familiar with archives, so every chance I get to visit one is a trip into a different world.
Stephanie Clarke, the Museum Archivist, and her assistant Bryony led our tour. There is only one other staff member in the Archive, a woman who worked in administration for many years and has been very valuable in applying her firsthand experience with the Museum to understanding the organizational processes that generated the papers now in the archive collection.
The Archive holds 6 record series. These include Finance Records, Staff Records, Trustee Records, Building Records, and Temporary Exhibitions records. Examples of objects in the General Archive collections include 8,000 photographs taken of the Museum and its collections, stereoscope images of objects in the collections, architectural drawings of the Museum buildings, minutes from meetings of the Board of Trustees, and successful job applications for Museum employees from the 19th century.
One of the major things that sets archives apart from libraries is that they inherit their collections from an outside entity. This means that their collections often reflect the organizational structure of the organization that created the records. Sometimes this arrangement appears quite sensible, other times it is quirky and unexpected. The General Archive is no exception: on one hand, I found it quite logical that, as Clarke explained, each Museum department has its own archival on material in its own permanent collections. On the other, I was very surprised to learn that the General Archive houses the reader's tickets from the British Library. This quirk in the collection is due to the history of the two institutions, Clarke explained. The British Library was originally housed on the British Museum campus, and when it moved to its new location, it left its archive of reader's tickets in the care of the General Archive.
Another surprising object in the collection was an exploded shell that had hit the Museum during Second World War. Clarke showed this to us along with photographs of the damage to the museum during the war. Most of the collections had been moved to underground storage when the war started, which was fortunate because the building was heavily damaged. I was very glad Clarke brought these things out for us; in the US, students learn in history class that London was heavily bombed during the War. Full stop. Period novels are a little better at illustrating the reality of what this entailed, but it wasn't really until I arrived here, and could see the entire Royal Festival Hall--built over an area bombed out in the war--and the entire Barbican, built over an area bombed out in the war--that I finally felt I understood what it meant for London to have been bombed.