Thursday, July 2, 2015
Like I said in a previous post… the British Museum is huge and the British Museum Archives is tiny.
Think: “PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWERS… itty-bitty living space.”
The Archive location is quite cramped. There’s only one room and it sort of feels like a submarine packed with books.
The Museum was founded in 1753 and officially opened in 1759, but the archive has documents dating back to 1738 when Hans Sloane began collecting materials. The original catalog of materials is, unfortunately, virtually indecipherable. Collectors throughout the last 300 years might have gathered incredibly important, amazing materials… but not documented the “whens” and “wheres” as carefully. Financial transactions weren’t documented and stored in an easily identified areas. Different committee and trustee documents were haphazardly kept, stored, and indexed making the finding of information nowadays extremely difficult.
There is no comprehensive catalog of museum materials.
That may sound really surprising to the average person, but libraries and museums are chock FULL of stuff, and things aren’t always documented the same way every time especially over a 300 year period. People take jobs. People retire or leave jobs. Knowledge is not always passed on from one person to the next. Nor are professionals always the ones taking on these major responsibilities. I’m sure volunteers or untrained people tried to do their best for the Museum’s archives, but failed by today’s standards. There’s only been a professionally trained archivist at the Museum for the past fifteen years.
Currently there is still only one trained archivist in the entire Museum.
It’s unfortunate that the archives have taken a back seat to the collections. Yes, some might argue that the collections are what make up the Museum, but the archives are what backup those collections! The documents that are supposed to be found in the archives would help prove ownership, history, monetary value, cultural value, etc. Objects do not have intrinsic value. Humans place value on objects, often arbitrarily. The Rosetta Stone is only a rock with a few marks in it -OR- the Rosetta Stone is the key to solving and reading Egyptian hieroglyphs. That has to be documented and written down somewhere! The past has to be remembered and saved if these objects are to maintain their worth for future generations, I think.
I guess money, time, and administrative higher-ups are universal problems.