Identifying and collecting archives in a museum

National Services Te Paerangi held two Managing Archives in a Museum workshops in Auckland during August to support ServiceIQ New Zealand Certificate of Museum Practice trainees. Thanks to MOTAT and Papakura Museum for hosting these workshops and also our workshop facilitator, Te Papa Collections Information Manager, Hannah Bremner.

Following the workshop, Hannah has provided some great resources and guidelines to help identify and collect archives in a museum (or other non-archival collecting institution).

Note: This information is aimed at the grass roots/ community archives community and does not cover what to do with born-digital material…..that’s a whole other workshop! However, the core principles remain the same in terms of what is and is not an archive.

What archives are and why they matter

Watch this clip from the National Archives UK which gives a nice feel for what archives are and why they matter:

Download this guide from the National Archives UK which covers the core principles of managing archives for non-archival institutions

Identifying what is an archive and what is not an archive

An archive can be a part of your museum collection. However, it is important to acknowledge that archival collections are appraised, acquired, stored, organised and described differently from other collection items or reference library materials (such as individual objects/ artefacts, publications or newspaper clippings).

Before you can identify what is an archive you need to know what a record is

Record/s = Recorded information, regardless of physical format or characteristics created, received and maintained as evidence of activities

Records are format neutral – Remember a document is always a ‘record’, but a record is not always a document

Three different types of archival collections commonly held in museums and other collecting institutions:

1. Museum or Institutional Archives = records (in any format) identified as holding long term archival value created by your organisation (or its predecessor).

To become archives they must also be records that are no longer in active use by the museum/your organisation for the function they were originally created for. This type of archival record is generally not recorded as a part of the museum’s/ institutions collection as they are not formally acquired according to the museum’s collections policy.

Watch this clip from the Smithsonian which gives an insight in to the importance of institutional archives (and is just generally cool):

If your museum or institution is a public office, you would use a disposal authority approved by the Chief Archivist in accordance with the Public Records Act 2005 to determine what to do with these records. Contact Archives New Zealand for more information about this if you would like to know more.

The below image is from Te Papa’s Museum Archive:

Original Dominion Museum building revealed during the demolition of the old museum, 3 May 1939, Wellington, by John Tenison Salmon. Te Papa

Original Dominion Museum building revealed during the demolition of the old museum, 3 May 1939, Wellington, by John Tenison Salmon. Te Papa (MU000537/001/001)

Check out some more of Te Papa’s Museum Archives

2. Collected Archives  = archival records collected by your institution in line with your collections policy

Check out some of Te Papa’s collected Archives

3. Public Archives = archival records created by public offices (such as schools, other public offices or records created via contracted work carried out by the private sector on behalf of a public office). These records are subject to the Public Records Act 2005.

Contact Archives New Zealand for more information about Public Records. 

What is not an archive

In most cases archives are not:

  • books and newspapers or other publications
  • reference photocopies of information that exists elsewhere
  • Duplicated copies of other material
  • Records that are still in active use for their original purpose

This type of material is most likely not of archival value and should either be discarded or managed separately in a reference collection if it is regularly accessed.

Many published materials are collected by other organisations such as the National Library, and can even be available online. Putting valuable resource into managing such items as part of your archive collection is costly and an inefficient use of time and effort.

However, there are exceptions to this rule:

  • If you receive a collection of archives, and in amongst the collection is a book that gives context to the rest of the collection, there is likely a case to keep the book as part of that set of archives.
  • If you receive a set of newspapers or newspaper clippings that have been annotated, the annotations make the items unique and possibly of archival value, so an assessment could be made that results in keeping the information within the archives collection.
  • Also, clippings that have been kept by a person or organisation in a scrapbook or album could be considered unique because they are an original arrangement of the clippings that has specific relevance in their new format.
  • Ephemera is often created en masse, but the rarity of publications created for a specific purpose makes them rather desirable items to keep.  It doesn’t hurt to keep two or perhaps three copies of ephemeral items.

There are other scenarios, but in short – if the items are not traditionally archival material but they give context to the collection, or if the publications are a sample of something quite specific or even rare, then there may be a case for them to be managed as an archive.

Find out more about the ServiceIQ New Zealand Certificate in Museum Practice