Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Central Archive of the British Museum - July 7

Ah, the British Museum, aka my Happy Place! I'm almost embarrassed to admit this, but this was my first visit to this wonderful institution. What kind of art history/history lover am I?!

The Museum covers 2 million years of human history and culture and has been in operation since 1753. This is the same year that the archive's records begin. Stephanie Clarke is the head (and only) archivist for the museum and was gracious enough to take us on our tour in several groups. Bryony Levenhall, an archives record assistant was also on hand to show us some of her favorite items.

After meeting in the Great Court, Stephanie led us to the basement and through a series of hallways until we reached the door seen above that actually made us let out a collective "ooh." The archive is comprised of documents and materials related to the history and administration of the Museum and Library. It should be noted that the majority of the library collection is no longer in the British Museum, is was transferred to the British Library when that new building was completed.)

As noted above, the records within the Archive begin with the foundation of the Museum in 1753. The bulk of the holdings is Trustees Minutes; records of acquisitions; and administration, policy and financial records. The materials are stored in bound volumes on stacks. The Museum had a bindery for this purpose. There are also a number of "Letter Books" that contain letters between archeologists in the field and the Museum's directors, the common theme among these letters is funding, or lack thereof.

A significant portion of the Archive deals with the Library that was housed in the Museum. In order to access the Library, potential patrons had to submit an application packet that included their intentions as well as a letter of reference. These packets and the corresponding response are all held in the Archive and date back to 1795. Upon the patron's first visit, they would sign a ledger book and these books are also part of the Archive, dating back to 1842. As could be expected, some of these patrons are very well-known historical figures. Among the signatures Bryony showed us were Karl Marx's and T.S. Elliott's.

One of my favorite items in the Archive was a item of somewhat dubious provenance. As with many sites in London, the British Museum was not immune from the Blitz and a section of the building was destroyed by the bombing. While sifting through the wreckage someone found the shell from one of these bombs and its has been housed in an acid free archival box since then.

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