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Monday, September 27, 2010

Back to School for Archivists Too

Autumn Landscape with Home, (painting). Alten, Mathias Joseph, 1871-1938, painter.Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture, Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Autumn Landscape with Home, (painting).

Alten, Mathias Joseph, 1871-1938, painter.
Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture,
Smithsonian American Art Museum.
It's that time of year again when the leaves turn color, the air is crisp, and the the sun takes longer to meet the morning.  The Smithsonian National Mall has quieted down considerably as children have vacated the garden picnic spots, and tourists have ceased to clog the Metro escalators.  It's that time of year when we all go back to school in some sense.

Archivists, Librarians, and Museum Specialists had a busy week last week as we too hit the classrooms and lecture halls for further education.  It started off with a conference put on by OCLC, "Yours, Mine, Ours: Leadership Through Collaboration."  The conference held a myriad of lectures revolving around the theme of collaboration; collaboration within your unit, with your peers of your profession, with anyone who may share your common values or goal. 

The conference was a wonderful demonstration of projects that fellow libraries, archives and special collections have been able to achieve through varying levels of collaboration.  Although it wasn't stated at the conference, I am hoping that this novel concept of collaboration becomes less novel.  Collaboration for me is inherent to not only my profession, but within my museum; therefore making it merely a function of my job and the Archives.  If OCLC can endeavour to hold this conference again I hope to see them (and us) push beyond the rallying cries of "collaboration is good," and move into things brought up in the "Birds of a Feather" sessions: how we can further integrate collaboration into processes, procedures, methods, attitudes, museum hierarchies, strategic plans, job descriptions, and professional culture?  How can we make it so that the "need to collaborate" is not just a hot culture buzz word, but a pleasant reality of our day to day jobs?

Next up, at least for the Freer|Sackler Archives, Library, and Museum Administration we headed to Salem Massachusetts for the "Art Museums Library Symposium" hosted by Peabody Essex Museum (PEM).  Held for the first time through funding and minimal attendance fees, PEM held a two day symposium that has been one of the best I have attended thus far in my career.  The symposium held a series of panels focusing on the roles of libraries, archives and administration within art museums; data unity where the Smithsonian Collections Search Center was lauded several times, how to serve our various audiences, fundraising, and collaboration (surprise, surprise).  The panels lasted roughly an hour with 2-3 presenters and afterwards there was not the traditional Q&A but rather a moderated discussion amongst the panelists and the attendees.  Symposium goers could build upon the discussion and even provided example of troubles or success they've had within their own unit. 

I believe PEM is hoping to hold this conference somewhat regularly and I hope that they do. PEM was right on with their topic choices, and did a fairly good job of canvassing for speakers to represent the broad array of art museums.  One thing I hope they do a better job of next time is to try and ensure there is a stronger representation of art museum administration.  At some points in the symposium there were the usual grumblings from archivists and librarians, but without a equal attendance of administration officials it's hard to move beyond our kvetching to actual constructive conversation among all facets of an art museum.  I know I would have loved my administration, education, curatorial and development departments to be present at the symposium to see the amazing things other museums are doing, and to therefore not only be more aware of the quiet sphere of art museum libraries and archives, but to be inspired along with the rest of us. 

Things I took away last week are:

Collaboration is still a novel concept, not everyone's doing it yet. But those that are have amazing things to show for it.

Archives still have an image issue.  We're either non-existent or dusty and under-used.

Archivists (and librarians) need to stop waiting for a top down administration approach and start making moves now.  We need to be better at educating about what we do, how we do it and what we have.  Don't expect the mountain to come to you... you see where I'm going?

In addition to educating our peers about our function, we need to educate ourselves on our peers' functions.  Okay I've collaborated with conservation and curatorial, but why oh why have I not focused on collaborating/working with development?  Development and I could have a very mutually beneficial relationship...

With the advent of social media we have no idea who we're serving anymore or how.  Researchers are of course our important users, but who else would like to use us - in any facet - as we exist to be used.  Some focused thought and introspection needs to happen in the Archives (libraries and museums too!) about who are using us, who should use us, who wants to use us AND where they use us.  That last part is perhaps most important in social media context.

All use needs to be counted.  Please tell me why statistics are only being gathered by physical foot traffic through the physical portals (read: doors)?  If we are endeavouring to be more and more accessible by going digital, why are we not as eager in counting our users through Internet portals?

This leads me to my last and very important point.  We are doing even more amazing things than ever with new tools and technologies, and yes, by our burgeoning effort to collaborate with each other.  But the point that was brought home to me was this: we are doing all this great work, but if we can't show anyone outside our art museum building - then what's the point?  Okay, we're collaborating, we're collaborating - but if the finished product doesn't result in an exhibition or an online presence how can we consider our efforts successful or worthy?  Alas, this is where a strong web/IT department would come in handy, and I think that's our next big mountain here at the Freer|Sackler.

Rachael Cristine Woody | Archivist
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Rachael, for sharing your experiences of these two conferences. I wish more colleagues would bring conversations that are started at conferences and symposia back to units. We will never move forward if we do not share information and open the conversation up to others. Thank you for stepping forward and setting an example for others to follow. Bravo!