Our class visited the archives of the British Museum and enjoyed an illuminating tour from Francesca, who for the last 15 years has been the central archivist tasked with organizing, cataloguing and otherwise caring for the materials. She told us about how the documents that constitute the museum’s archives are pulled from collections across the whole estate, especially from collections offices and other departments (e.g., administrative, acquisitions, etc.). As the only archivist, she must bring all of it together and essentially consolidate everything in a master “list of what everyone’s got”, which for one person must be an enormous task.
Although the museum was established in 1753, Francesca said that some of the oldest records come from 1738, when discussions were held about how to potentially set up a grand museum. Sir Hans Sloane, physician to the King, had a truly amazing and indispensable personal catalogue of books, manuscripts, curiosities, and other materials which he decided to bequeath to the nation in establishing a national repository, as there existed no national collection before. Now estimated to be worth around £100,000, Sloane required a £20,000 payment for his collections (he had two children and wanted £10,000 for each of them). A lottery was held to raise the money as there would have been none otherwise, Francesca explained. By 1748, correspondence between Sloane and other museum stakeholders demonstrates how discussions took place regarding how to best transfer the collection. Deliberations between locating the museum in Buckingham House or Montagu House ensued, but in 1759 the museum opened to the public in the latter. Initially, it was quite elitist and only the gardens were open, with strict rules, in the largely rural area. But from then on, the museum grew.
Among other things, the museum archives hold the documents related to the Committee of the British Museum and its Trustees, including records of all essential decisions made related to the museum (e.g., minutes of meetings, indexes of personnel, etc). Many records are bound in volumes simply called “Original Papers”, but the content could actually be a range of different things. They could be letters about the starting point of the museum, or correspondence to the Director, or lists of items categorized as “A” for “Antiquities”, of which there are multitudes of volumes, Francesca said. There are volumes called “Book of Presents” and others called “Book of Donations”, which are essentially the same thing but titled under two different names. This makes it very challenging sometimes to find where specific records are. Sometimes you just do not know and have to go looking, she said. Luckily, she is quite experienced.
Francesca told us about some of the challenges she faces in working with the archive. They do not currently have a completely comprehensive catalogue, she explained, as some departments have literally millions of items and artifacts. Francesca showed us how many early records were bound into big volumes (which she said was “not good”) although more things were placed into storage boxes rather than bound together after the First World War. She shared a story about how some researchers who are interested in a particular map of Syria — one that, in order to loan, she would have to actually cut out of a bound volume. This is clearly not ideal. She did explain that there are some records that exist on microfilm that may one day be digitized, but that will be a long-term project.
She showed us some very interesting materials from the archives. For example, she has Officers Reports from 1805-1869, letters from the Trustees and the Director to the Principal Librarian bound in “Letter Books”, gallery and exhibition guidebooks, “Lists of Establishment” that list information about some staff members (including one person who worked at the museum for 67 years!), and photographs of the Reading Room and galleries from 1875. There are financial records dating back to 1754, the Duke of Bedford deed of properties from 1694, excavation records referring to Lawrence of Arabia’s adventures, and Bram Stoker’s Reading Room ticket from 1895.
A few of my favorite items that Francesca showed us were the documents and photos associated with the bombing that hit the museum in the Second World War. The Reading Room was like a beacon for bombers, she said, and that part of the museum took a direct hit. Luckily, many museum artifacts had been moved into quarries and Aldwych tube station or just otherwise off-site, but the damage was done. She showed us a partially destroyed incendiary bomb that had been found on the museum grounds.
I also loved seeing Oscar Wilde’s Reading Room signature from 1879. She said that the first 40,000 applications were thrown out long ago, so his application is sadly lost. We also got to see an article from the 1840s in The Times that referenced the museum and even included some images of Montagu House. Lastly, we got to see a little postcard book that was printed in 1912-13, as the museum was just starting to realize some viable commercial possibilities. The innovative postcard gallery was where the cloakroom is now.
Francesca is one of about 1,000 people who work at the museum now. She talked about the complexities of the archive and about how if you were not familiar with how the museum works, you likely would not be able to find your way around the archives very well. In the lists and lists of items in the collections, it takes a practiced hand to be able to find accurate references in a timely manner. Thankfully there are lots of volunteers who can help make things happen! As a collections-based institution, there are challenges to adequately process and preserve the archival materials. The amount of information — and the amount of required work — is staggering. Out of the some 8 million items in the museum, about 3 million items are on the database. Less than half….yet that is still 3 million items! That’s amazing, although she noted that they must work diligently to go back and “catalog the old stuff.” It’s easier to deal with the relatively new materials, as a more reasonable amount is acquired now as compared to the backlogs.
Francesca was able to get a personal license for an dedicated archival catalog about 18 months ago, but before that had to work off of a carefully compiled spreadsheet. She explained that she would like to get software licenses for one person per department and then spend time training everyone on how to properly catalog materials using International Standard Archival Description – Version G. As the British Museum is a public body, everything must (ideally) be made accessible for the public, not least the 6.5 million visitors who walk through the front doors every year. Those 6.5 million people are welcome to read materials on-site, but unfortunately not in the historic circular Reading Room located at the heart of the museum. After enduring bombing during the Second World War and the construction of a false floor built to hold exhibitions for about five years, the Reading Room endures no more: it is currently empty.