Thursday, July 8, 2010

British Museum Archives

After my effusive post on the British Museum in general, you might not have been able to guess that one of my favorite parts of my day there was a tour of the British Museum Archives. The archives of the British Museum are organized differently than you might assume: records pertaining to specific objects are guarded by their respective departments. The job of the Central Archive is to maintain the records in a more administerial line, such as the minutes from the Board of Trustees' meetings, the Book of Presents (whatever was given or donated to the museum), letter books (transcriptions of correspondence pertaining to the museum) and the records of the former Reading Room, currently in use as exhibition space.
The Archive also holds 8,000 photographs from all different times of the museum, including stereoscopic (3D) views from the 1850s of the exhibits and a humerous photo of a large shark which was part of the collection before the Museum of Natural History split off from the main museum. Looking at the large specimen kept in an open area and having seen people rubbing anything in reach in the museum today, we were all curious about how they had managed to preserve the specimen from being damaged by people touching it.  Ms. Clarke, the archivist who was giving us our backstage tour, showed us the answer: right next to the shark was sitting a stern little Victorian gentleman, keeping an eye on all who approached.
Another surprising find in the archive is a shell that had exploded in one of the galleries during World War II, along with photos of the significant damage wreaked by the shell. The archivist joked that no one knew quite what to do with the shell when they found it, because it hadn't exactly been donated to the museum to be used in an exhibit. Also from the same incident is a mass of hundreds of coins melted together from heat that the Department of Metals and Coins keeps stowed away for the time being.
Other amazing items shown on the tour was the original deed for the land, from even before the Museum began in 1753, and the folio books used in designing exhbitions, which even included fabric samples and paint chips. It was also fascinating to get a glimpse of the Reading Room records of who applied for a readers card, who referenced them, and when they signed for their card (if and/or when they were approved). Karl Marx and T.S. Eliot are among those who held cards for the Readers Room, in both cases before they were well-known.
This image courtesy of Microsoft Clipart.

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