Museum Archives: An Introduction,
Edited by Deborah Wythe. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, Museum
Archives Section, 2004. 256 pp. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. Resource
Guide. Available from the
Society of American Archivists, $45.00 members,
$62.00 nonmembers. ISBN 1-931666-06-7.
Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol.
68, No.2, Fall/Winter 2005)
Exhibitions and expeditions; curators and collections; this is the unique
and occasionally eccentric institutional context of the museum archives.
Deborah Wythe, archivist at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, is both editor
of and contributor to the second edition of this volume. Contributions
by fifteen other museum professionals comprise this sizable, comprehensive,
and highly informative reference work. The first edition, thirty-five
pages in length and published by SAA in 1984, was described by its author,
William A. Deiss, as a “manual.” It reflects the beginning
of the museum archives movement, which is explicated in detail by Ann
Marie Pryzbyla in the first chapter of the current second edition.
Much has changed in the twenty years between the two editions. Deiss
wrote in his introduction that only a small number of the more than 6,000
museums in the United States had archives programs, and “the purpose
of this manual is to encourage museums to preserve their historically
valuable records, and to offer guidelines for the establishment of museum
archives.” Progress since that time can be seen in that four of
the contributors to the second edition (including the editor) were hired
to start up museum archives programs, and Peter C. Marzio, director of
the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, who wrote the foreword to the volume
was responsible for starting archival programs in two of the institutions
that he directed. The book was produced based on the efforts of the Museum
Archives Section of SAA, which did not exist when the first edition was
A collaborative work of 256 pages, this new edition is composed of twenty-three
chapters that cover the history and context of museum archives, advice
on getting started, basic archival activities within the museum context
(e.g., appraisal, arrangement), description, research use, ethics, and
outreach, as well as a chapter on oral history. Like its predecessor
volume, it addresses records surveys and management, but expands the
discussion to include disaster planning and specific material types;
photos and audiovisuals; architectural records; electronic records; objects;
field records; and scientific notebooks.
The last two chapters, both of which relate to the return of improperly
or illegally obtained museum objects or artifacts, make up a separate
section for museum archives issues. Sarah R. Demb, who worked as the
archivist at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard
University, and at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian
Institution, reviews the effects of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection
and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Catherine Herbert, presently provenance
researcher at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, talks about the difficult
issue of restituting Nazi-looted art.
An extensive resource guide at the back of the book includes a list
of professional archival and related professional organizations, continuing
archival education opportunities, a selected bibliography, sample policies
procedures and forms, Internet resources, funding sources, and selected
archival vendors. The supplementary material also includes a copy of
the Museum Archives Guidelines. Created by the Museum Archives Section
of the SAA and approved by the SAA Council in 2003, these guidelines
provide an excellent summary overview of what should be considered in
establishing and maintaining a museum archives.
Wythe defines the context of the archives within the museum as one that,
first and foremost, revolves around the object: its collection, preservation,
exhibition, loan, and interpretation. Following the administrative progression
of acquiring museum objects through their registration, conservation,
and use for research, programs, and projects, she describes the complex
organizational structure of a museum. She also discusses the dual role
of a museum archives as a day-to-day administrative resource as well
as a source of research material about the broader culture that the museum
collects and in which it exists.
Whereas Weiss advocated for the establishment of museum archives, Wythe
now defines the new edition’s readers not only as “the experienced
archivist working in a museum for the first time” but also as “museum
curators, photo and film librarians, digitization project managers and
registrars who are interested in using archival techniques.”
Arranging and presenting collections of objects (both museum and archival)
in today’s electronic and database environment, whether for internal
museum records management or for public information, has, indeed, become
the work not just of archivists but of information and museum professionals
of all kinds. Museum curatorial departments are digitizing and making
their holdings available on-line, sometimes adding contextual notes to
the overall description. Collaborative efforts across institutions, such
as the Resources Available in the Natural Sciences (RAVNS) project supported
by RLG’s Natural History Steering Committee, seek to standardize
descriptions for collections that can include both archival materials
and specimen collection records.
But this expansion of archival arrangement must still be based on well-organized,
well-preserved collections stored safely with proper intellectual access.
No matter how much electronic access evolves, the basic organization
and preservation of archival records (both physical and born digital)
remain the same, and the basic information in this volume is not likely
to become outdated anytime soon. It is a valuable reference and a pleasure
to read, with illustrations from museum archives photo collections and
sidebars with personal tales from the archives. Highly recommended.
American Museum of Natural History