Friday, July 13, 2012

The British Museum Archives

Door to the storage area of the central archives for the British Museum.
The British Museum suffered a great deal of damaged during the bombing raids of WWII. Much of the collection had already been moved offsite. However, the museum stayed open to those brave enough to visit. Employees corresponded between the museum and the offsite locations where they were sent to care for the objects.

These amazing details are recorded for posterity at the British Museum archive, where Stephanie Clarke works single-handedly to maintain the museum's important history. The archive holds the actual steel casting of a bomb that hit the museum. She showed our group photographs of the metals gallery that was reduced to rubble by the blast as well as the letters written from the different locations of the permanent collection.

Stephanie receives 30 outside requests per day for information from the archive, not counting requests from museums staff and associated institutions, such as the British Library and the Natural History Museum, which were both previously a part of the British Museum.

Old sign from when the British Library
was a part of the British Museum.
The Archive is rich with handwritten board minutes discussing everything from employee conduct to acquisitions. The minutes are vast, and I'm sure to everyone's relief, extensively indexed. The massive collection of original papers include letters from the building's architect as well as the current director's notes on the subject.

The Lists of Establishment is an annual record of every employee of the museum, start date, and salary. This has been of special interest to those doing family histories. The archive holds about 6,000-7,000 photographs including stereoscopic images and a viewer, to give an excellent idea of the gallery space from 150 years ago in thrilling detail.

The archive also houses many drawings and documentation on the mid-19th century construction, projections which are amazingly accurate. Deeds for the various plots of land held and sold by the museum in its history, some very old and written in elaborate calligraphy with no punctuation and wax seals at the bottom. Others were typed on typewriters.

The British Museum building.
In short the archive contains an amazing record of the institutional history which is well used by the museum and academics. Aside from the numerous online requests, Stephanie addresses, between four and five readers per week, which is a lot for the size of the collection and more than she has previously seen. The British Museum is an excellent example of a small archive with a rich collection and careful steward documenting an institution that is so important and so beloved.

No comments: