Museum Archives: An Introduction, Second Edition

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 published.

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