18 May 2016

Archiving artistic heritage in museums

Last November, I attended a conference for 'Unboxing the Archive: how Tate is transforming access to our artistic heritage' at Tate Britain. As I have started a new project on listing the Asia Department Archives in the British Museum (BM), considering the prospect of digitising such an archive has become an increasing thought.

A vast majority of the 20th-century objects in the BM collection have archival correspondence detailing how the object became part of the collection and related files to multiple exhibitions. Whereas the BM Collection Online Database holds the basic information about each object, their corresponding archival files demonstrate the processes and attitudes regarding acquiring art during the time period. This information is valuable to understand how collections develop and change over time and can help people trace family members connections to the BM. Therefore, it is unfortunate that this information is not readily available especially online. As Rosemary Lynch stated in her opening remarks at the conference:

'Considering the prospect of digitisation for library and archives has allowed us to articulate value of online art preservation and engage with audiences across borders'. 

So the question is, can this be replicated in the BM? 

Well, the first thing that would be needed is funding! Tate received £2 million in funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for archive access to transform the experience of participating with British cultural heritage. However, this in itself is already top of dedicated staff and expertise. I am not an archivist and the BM only has one trained archivist who is far stretched over the Museum. Other challenges include the fact that nothing has previously been listed in depth. As department such as the Registry has been dissolved, lists and files have been lost or misplaced in the process. So for the last several months, we have been weeding through rows and rows of archival files discarding files that no not need to be kept. We now have an agreed archival selection that needs fine-weeding and listing.

However, the million pound question has been where should we start? Obviously, there would be no point assigning a file numbering system as of yet, as we do not know what we have within the archives. Not to mention, we do not know what files could relate or cross-reference to others. So this past week, I have just started to list individual files by scope note/file description, (former) reference number and notes in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet according to the cataloguing guidelines used by the National Archives. To understand the connection with the objects in the BM collections, I have also listed the museum/object registration number for each file. So far we have come across some difficulty in doing this. For example, large files such as Minor Purchases have contained pages of correspondence to different objects in the BM collection. Further unforeseen challenges that have also arisen are photographs within archival files. To ensure that they are preserved correctly, we have had to invest in archival polyester pockets.

It is difficult to know how long this whole process will take but I am optimistic about the future. Especially the idea of having more dedicated staff members and an archive cataloguing system to export the spreadsheet into such as CALM or ASLIB. Then transforming the physical archives into digital archives linked with metadata to the image database Odin and the online collection database Merlin.

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