Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Nirvana for Archaeology Nerds

During my time in England, I made it a point to visit several sites that were not part of our required course list. This wasn't too difficult, as there are so many museums, archives, and libraries throughout the country to sate anyone's desires. The one that stuck with me most, however, was my visit to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. For someone who has been a student of art and archaeology for many years, the Ashmolean was a name I heard referenced often. However, I had recently forgotten it until my professor mentioned it while we were visiting the Bodleian in Oxford. All of those high school and college courses in Art History and Archaeology came flooding back and I knew I needed to visit that museum before we headed back to London.

After finishing with our required visits of the day, I quickly rushed over to the museum, praying that it was open past 4 p.m. I was relieved to know it was open until 6 p.m., so I had a couple hours to really experience the museum....and it takes that long to see it all. Discussing every aspect of the museum, however, would be too much for the blog post so I am going to focus on the parts of the museum that really struck my interest: the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art and archaeology wings.

But first, a little bit of background. The Ashmolean has been around for centuries, but the modern version has only existed since 1908. The early 1600s see the collection begin to grow, but mainly in portraits and donated collections from notable Englishmen. It continued to grow for the following two centuries until a large collection of Greek and Roman sculptures were given to the museum by the Countess of Pomfret in the mid-18th century. This expand the museum greatly and it became necessary for the museum to expand in floor space as well. This was finally made possible in 1845. The final major growth of the museum happened in 1908, when Oxford University's University Art Collection united with the Ashmolean to form the modern museum.

When one walks into the Ashmolean, they are directed first to the Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern collections. It is a wonderful wing with lots of artifacts from all periods of Egyptian history. What is especially nice is that fact that it is not nearly as packed at the British Museum, so one can really enjoy the history around them. There is a strong collection of pre-dynastic Egypt, which is a period that many people do not focus on. For example, you can see the Scorpion Macehead, an early Egyptian king who's name is now enshrined in popular culture after The Rock starred in The Scorpion King. According to the museum's website, they are working on a redesign of this part of the collection to help serve their patrons better.
It's really quite stunning in person

The Greek and Roman collections were especially exciting. Specifically, the Ashmolean has a very famous bronze statue: The Artemision Bronze. It was recovered at a shipwreck in the Mediterranean and scholars are still unsure of whether or not it is Poseidon or Zeus. This is because the statue is missing the piece it should be holding in its right hand. It could have been a trident. Or it could have been a lightening bolt. As someone who has seen this sculpture in lot of courses over the years, I was overjoyed to have my photo taken with it.

What is special about the Roman collection is their Cast Gallery. The museum has had casts made of famous statues located in different museums around the world and they have them all housed in one gallery. Thus, patrons of this one museum can see such sculptures as the Statue of Augustus and the Laocoon.

Emperor Augustus (aka Octavian)
Overall, this is a really wonderful museum. It houses much more than what I wrote about here and is well worth the visit while you're in Oxford. If you're only in London, Oxford is merely an hour train ride away and should be visited for the university, if not for this museum as well. I highly recommend it, for the museum has a lot of wonderful items, is well planned out, and had a lot of helpful attendees to make sure your visit is pleasant and informative.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Conserving our Past for the Future

Our final class took us back to the British Library, this time for a tour of the conservation center. Every major library and archival institution does some level of conservation/preservation on their items. Normally, the most important items in the collection are taken care of first and those of less value are conserved later when need or monetary means arise. This is a guiding principal for libraries and archives, for it is far too expensive and time consuming to preserve and conserve every document in the collection.

The same is true for the British Library, which gives a lot of intense care to the most important documents but chooses to give general care to the rest of the collection. For example, the British Library is not involved in a massive de-acidification project. (This means that it would be removing all of the acids from all of the paper in the collection, something that would require an extensive amount of people, time, and money to finish.

Instead, it is focused on preventative conservation, a practice employed by many institutions. The library makes sure that its collections are kept at a certain temperature and are in acid-free folders and archival boxes. They have recently built a low-oxygen storage center in Yorkshire.It keeps the documents at a very cold temperature and doesn't allow them to light on fire. They will be building another one for their newspaper collection very soon.

Moreover, the British Library is a communal institution. It sees itself as the preservation headquarters for all of the archives and libraries in England. Thus, it feels obliged to help out fellow institutions throughout the nation. The Preservation Advisory Center hosts training events for librarians and archivists, gives out free pamphlets on preservation, and speaks at conferences on the subject.

Overall, the Conservation Centre at the British Library is much more than a lot of rooms filled with books, photographs, and documents that need repairing. It is a highly-functioning aspect of the British Library that works to prevent damage to its documents as well as reach out to the archival community in England. The library takes its role as ambassador very seriously and is thus one of the premier institutions in the world in regards to preservation and conservation.

Dr. Livingstone, I Presume

The Royal Geographical Society had a huge impact on the shaping of 19th century British imperialism as well as the world we live in today. Originally a dining club for British gentlemen, it became a more formal society in the 1840s. It's manifesto: to collect geographical knowledge and disseminate it to the greater society. To do so, the society urged people to travel and gather information and then had the information written up in a journal. Out of this, it became necessary for the RGS to start a library to hold all of the material brought back from the travelers as well as items purchased by the society.

Today, the RGS is still in existence but does not fund as many large trips as it once did. This is in an attempt to lessen the stigma of imperialism that is attached to the name of the society. However, the library holds vast amounts of historical information that conjure up Indiana Jones-esque adventures. Our session at the library allowed us to see some of the most important items in the collection. The RGS traveled to Africa, the Polar Regions, Antarctica, and Central Asia, and thus the items in the collection reflect these regions.

We saw a lot so here is a short listing of some of the items:
- Maps Maps Maps! The collection has over 1 million maps and it takes up about 1/2 of the collection itself. We saw maps drawn by the explorers who tried to find the source of the Nile. Some of these are the earliest maps of inner Africa ever known to man.
- Photographs: the photographs consist of about 1/2 million items and we were shown drawings of African animals by some of the explorers
- Objects: There are only 1500 items in this part of the collection but they are some of the most expensive and one-of-a-kind items in the collection.

Here is a short list of what we saw:
      - Dr. Livingstone's Hat
      - Sir Henry Stanley's Pith Helmet
      - Shackleton's balaclava
      - George Malley's mountaineering boot
      - John Speke's sextant

There were all amazing and the librarians/archivist had packed them away well to preserve the items. While we did not scratch the surface of what the RGS has to offer, a visit to this institution allowed us a glimpse into the past and whet our appetite for more adventures!

Paying the Price of History

The National Archives of Scotland:  http://scotsfamily.com/NatArchive.jpg 
The position of archivist/record-keeper is one of the oldest professions in the world. Every country, king, duchy, church, and institution had a record-keeper; someone who kept hold of their records and organized them in an orderly fashion. Today, the position is not as well known and is thus often not recognized by the public as an important profession. Society cannot always grasp the important work done by archivists or how necessary they are to protecting our heritage.

Due to the hidden nature of the professions, archivists are forced to promote their archives in different ways to the public and do their best to raise funds to preserve the documents. This has become even worse in the last few years, with the recession hitting libraries and archives very hard. However, some places have found a way to fund their projects through the collections they hold and the National Archives of Scotland is one of them. 

The records of Scotland have been around for several centuries, but the current building was not erected until the end of the 18th century when it was finally decided that Scotland needed a home for its records. Since then, the archives have been held in the General Register House in downtown Edinburgh. They have since expanded to several other buildings on the outskirts of the city, since the records of the nation have grown quite rapidly. 

More documents means more space means more manpower which ultimately means more money needed. Thus, the National Archives in Scotland does something very different, something not done at the National Archives of the United States - it charges you to do your genealogical research. For 15 pounds a day, you can do a day's worth of searching of the records at the ScotlandsPeople Center

Searching one's genealogical records at the National Archives in College Park or Washington D.C., is completely free. but in Scotland, you  must pay. And according to Dr. Tristan Clarke, no one complains about having to pay for this "value-added" service. The people who use the genealogical center seem to expect to pay for such services. This is great for the archives because it generates a lot of income for the institution that it can then put into other services, such as its digitization projects and other preservation needs. 

I'm still in a bit of shock regarding this program, for it seems as something that would never pass in the United States. Having the ability to look at the records of your nation is your right as a citizen. Thus, paying for it seems almost wrong. However, the users of the ScotlandsPeople Centre in Edinburgh have absolutely no issue and I feel as if this would be a great addition to our National Archives. If it were to be instituted and accepted, the archives could generate quite a bit of money and use it to pay more employees, fund more projects, and propel the archives into the future.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Library For The World

The Edinburgh Central Library reminds me a bit of how the Public Libraries in New York City are laid out. There is one central library and then there are several branch libraries throughout the city that are connected to the main branch. While Edinburgh is not as large a city as New York, it does boast 27 branch libraries that are connected to its Central Library.

Our visit allowed us to tour and learn about the Central Library, which almost acts as one of the large learning institutions in Edinburgh. It almost reminded me of the Barbican Library in London, but with more branches, more employees, and more services. Founded in 1890, The Central Library is a Carnegie Library. Carnegie gave 50,000 pounds for the construction of the library, which translates into about 45 million pounds today. His gift and vision allowed the library to grow into what it is today. Here are some numbers and facts about the library:

The stacks are really quite beautiful
- It has about 1/2 a million items and the libraries get about 1/2 million visitors each year
- The library gets about 8-10,000 new members each year. The membership is free and anyone can join. Even if you don't live in Edinburgh or Scotland. You are allowed to join the library and use their online services.
- They are strong advocates of self-service and allow their patrons to check out books by themselves. They can be renewed online as well.
- They are pioneers in the digital world for public libraries. They have a very interactive website with online newsletters, access to some of their large collections of documents and photographs, as well as learning resources, such as language courses and driver's licenses classes. All of this is available online and free with your library card, which is also free!
- Their Reading Champion Program is really awesome and it attempts to get books to looked after and accommodated children. This can kind of be equated to children living in foster homes in the United States. They focus on those living in Edinburgh and it helps foster a desire to read among these children, thus to lessen the high number of illiteracy in the city.

Overall, the Central Library of Edinburgh is a great organization. They really reach out of all of their patrons and are a step ahead of the curve in the digital world. It is truly a library for the world.

Photo Courtesy of The Edinburgh Public Libraries: http://talesofonecity.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/ref-lib-from-gallery.jpg?w=584

Friday, July 13, 2012

Someone Please Stop Putting the Archives in the Basement

When in doubt, the archives often find themselves in either a basement or an attic. Now an attic is the worst, for all the changes in temperature and humidity have a major impact on the documents and their preservation. Basements can have similar issues with temperature and humidity, but are often cooler than attics (that whole hot air rises, cool air falls thing) and so it's not that much of an issue. Still, people and organizations tend to put their archives in the basement because it doesn't garner a high level of attention and importance.

Well. at the British Museum, the archives of the institution are in.....the basement. When one walks up to the building, they see this beautiful 19th century building with classical undertones all over the facade. You walk inside, and the center of the building has recently been transformed to adapt to the 21st century needs of the museum, for it now has a huge glass dome that holds the temporary exhibits, the gift shop, and several small cafes. A glass domed ceiling towers above you and one can know the weather outside by just looking up.

However, to get to the archives, one must leave the large dome and head into the depths of the building. You  walk down steps and head through a heavy steel door that takes you to the underbelly of the original 1850s building. Stephanie Clarke, our guide and the museum's archivist, takes us through the hallways until we happen upon this door to my right. It reminds one of a submarine.

Stephanie took us into the archives and gave us a great overview of the holdings. She joined the museum about six years ago, after the museum had hired an archivist who was, well, not trained to be an archivist. Suffice it to say, Stephanie had a lot of work to do and she's been able to get a great handle on the collection during the past six years. Now I could go into all of the really exciting aspects of archives and use big words, like provenance, and record series, and finding aids, but I will try to put explain what they have and what Stephanie has done to, in a sense, organize the collection. 

The central archives of the British Museum holds the administrative history of the museum. Each department in the museum takes care of their own collection so Stephanie only has to oversee one area. This administrative area is split up into several records series, so they are easier to access my researchers. They are as follows: trustees minutes, staff records, finances, building records, temporary exhibitions, excavations, and the round reading room. While we didn't get to see all of these, we did get to see examples from a few of them. The trustees minutes are very important for reference inquiries, for they give evidence for all of the items donated to, or purchased by, the museum. They also include correspondence with different people who had an impact on the museum and its growth. The building records include both plans and deeds of the building. The records of temporary exhibitions includes binders filled with information regarding the make up, construction, and layout of each exhibition. All are very important to the history of the exhibition as well as allowing curators to see what was done in the past.

The archives of the British Museum are small but filled with valuable information. The most upsetting aspect of this is that there is no finding aid or online catalog of the collection. Currently, the only listing of the collection is located in an in-house Excel spreadsheet. However, there are now plans in the budget to put together an online catalog so hopefully that will be available to researchers in the next two years. There is a lifetime of work do to in these archives, but they are extremely important to the history and future of the British Museum. 

A Touch of Normality in the Disney World for Shakespseare

Stratford-Upon-Avon is a tourist attraction, built up around the fame of William Shakespeare. It has been a tourist attraction for a couple of centuries now, and it's tough to find the local aspects of the town in one that is so inundated with tourists and shops/inns/pubs/locales that cater to the tourist crowd. However, right next to Shakespeare's birthplace and museum, is the Stratford-Upon-Avon Public Library. It is unassuming in its outward appearance, for it attempts to stick to the 17th century themed-buildings that populate the town. Over the door is a small sign that says, Public Library, but nothing more to make its presence known. Tourists pass by it without glance, rushing quickly on to see the more popular attractions of the town.

However, when you actually take the opportunity to enter this building, you're walking into a modern, yet small, public library. It reminds one of a local public library branch in any small town in America. It is a Carnegie Library that was founded in 1905 and has stood there ever since. When you walk into the library, the first aspect you notice are the 16 computers, all of which are being used by library patrons. There is a woman checking out her books on one of three RFID scanners, and other locals are milling about in the small alcoves. The library is small but it fulfills the purpose of this town. We saw only three employees working, one re-shelving, another sitting at a reference desk, and one hovering nearby the computers in case anyone was in need of assistance.

When you walk through the library, you can get a sense of the demographics of Stratford-Upon-Avon. There is definitely an older crowd in the library and this is also evident in the books on the shelves. However, there is also a large children's library, showing that they do have a sizable number of children who use the books. Upstairs, there are the non-fiction books as well as the genealogy section. This is more extensive, once more showing what is important to the patrons of the library. Computers can be found throughout the library and one can access them via their library card # and password. The library uses the Dewey Decimal System and one look at the bookshelves shows that it has room to expand its collection.

Overall, the public library in Stratford-Upon-Avon has a very homey feel. It reminded me of the library that I grew up in and the one that played an important role in me becoming a librarian. While it is very unassuming from the outside, the inside is very modern and one feels very much away from the tourist trap that is Shakespeare's birthplace.