3. What You’d Never Guess About the British Museum’s Archive

After visiting the British Museum’s Archive, I concluded that at least three points of public archival work are vitally important for the successful organization of an archive: funding, space, and professional staff.    Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 4.09.25 AMSince the British Museum is a public institution, its financial support comes primarily from the government. However, due to lack of funding, there isn’t much to spare on the Museum, much less its archive. As a result, it is hard to maintain, hard to improve, and almost impossible to move the British Museum’s Archive to a better location. Currently, due to limited financial resources, the archive is pinched in a small space with only one archivist on staff.

Space is another problem in the British Museum’s Archive. The earliest records housed date back to 1758; they were founded by a collector, Hans Sloane, who donated over 10,000 books and manuscripts. The number of items in the collection has only increased since then and there is no space to organize the books and manuscripts properly. Some of the collection sits on the floor, precariously vulnerable to flooding. With little funding and no other space to house materials, there isn’t much that can be done to improve the situation.

In addition to a general lack of financial resources and space, professional expertise is also a challenge for the archive. Throughout its long development, there were stretches of time when no trained archivist worked on staff to properly catalog the materials. Instead, historians or others interested in helping the British Museum randomly selected various bits of information they deemed important to save and pitched the rest. As a result, the current head archivist is left sorting through huge gaps of information that is stored at random. She explained that it is difficult to sift through and find information due to the general lack of consistent organization throughout the entire collection. While she and the professionals before her have worked hard to resolve the issue, with only one full-time professional and a handful of volunteers, every undertaking to improve the archive requires a significant amount of time to ensure it is properly and professionally done to best practice standards.

As a professional pursuing a certificate in archival administration, it was helpful to see the politics involved in public archival work. I am interested in working for a museum, therefore this experience was doubly helpful. It was apparent the archivist we met with was not interested in working at the Museum only for the salary it offered her; she felt pride in her career choice. She said the most helpful thing to possess as an archivist is historical knowledge of your given institution. Knowing the finer details of the institution I work for requires no small level of dedication, resolve, and sincere interest. Wherever I end up, I want to care about where it came from so I can appropriately put my efforts to improving, maintaining, and giving access to its priceless past.

A short video with some photos from and of the British Museum Archive:

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