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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Excavations in the Freer|Sackler Archives

 Presenting Archival Resources to an International Community

Presenting archival resources to a targeted scholarly community was the ultimate goal the Archives had set out to achieve.  The Ernst Herzfeld project initiative began in early 2009 when the collection was identified as an institutional priority.  With that mandate, the Archives worked with several departments within the Freer|Sackler to secure grants to help with the preservation, digitization, cataloging and creation of web resources.  The project's content, scope, and importance led itself to be a natural collaborative endeavor, allowing for the Archives to work with Conservation (including the Museum Conservation Institute), Curatorial, Design, Development, Director's Office, Scholarly Programs and Publications, and Web.

Now, two years into the project the Freer|Sackler has a lot to show for our collaborative efforts even though we are only halfway through the Herzfeld papers.  On July 1st, 2011 Ancient Near East curator Alexander Nagel and myself co-presented on the archival resources that we built up over the last two years for the Ernst Herzfeld papers.  We were honored to be invited by the Museum fur Islamische Kunst of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, as they held an Ernst Herzfeld colloquium on "100 Years of Excavations in Samarra."  If you're a regular reader then you are familiar with the Freer|Sackler Archives' efforts to acknowledge and celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Samarra excavations by highlighting the recently digitized records and online web resources.

Alex gave the first half of the presentation by contextualizing the current predicament facing both art and archival items related to the infamous German archaeologist, Ernst Herzfeld. Essentially any of the Herzfeld object finds and his records were dispersed among the international museum community dependent on his current relationship with them and financial need.  Now, almost 100 years later, the museums and scholarly community are trying to piece together the art with their provenance history; a job that's not easy when many of the Ernst Herzfeld papers are not readily accessible across disparate museums and archives.

My half of the presentation was focused on the work that the Freer|Sackler Archives has been doing that presents a possible solution and opportunity for all the museums who have a relationship with the Ernst Herzfeld papers.  Through diligent cataloging on an item level by our highly regarded cataloger, Xavier Courouble, we discovered a coding mechanism that allowed a search function of the entire collection by an inventory number.  Fortunately for us Herzfeld was very meticulous in his record keeping, and he assigned each item an inventory number.  Every time he drew, photographed or otherwise documented the item we would write it's inventory number next to it.  Mr. Courouble would then mark in the records which inventory numbers were documented so that scholars can now do a search of the catalog by an item inventory number, resulting in all the relevant records across the collection being pulled.  (For a thorough example using a Balkuwara object, see our YouTube tutorial).


Copy of our slides as presented at the "100 Years of Samarra" conference:

Abstract as printed in the "100 Years of Samarra" program:

Alexander Nagel and Rachael Cristine Woody, Washington DC
Excavations in the Archives – An Update on the Ernst Herzfeld
Online Resources at the Freer|Sackler in Washington, DC

In 1946, Ernst Herzfeld donated the largest share of his papers to the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Despite their crucial importance to the study of the art history, archaeology, and early exploration of the Near East, the Herzfeld materials have only recently been completely explored and catalogued at a detailed level. With help of major grants from the Leon Levy Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution Collections Care and Preservation Fund, the Freer|Sackler Archives was able to undertake an ambitious project to preserve, digitise, and catalogue the contents of the Ernst Herzfeld papers. As the cataloguing project nears completion, the Archives have started producing web products to package the Herzfeld materials for easy use and promotion. In this presentation we will give a brief overview of the F|S Herzfeld Archives contents, an update on current research on the Herzfeld papers F|S staff members are involved in, present the cataloguing project and introduce the various web products that have been created or are in the planning stages.


From an archivist's perspective, being able to reach a key audience for a collection is what I classify as the concluding success for a project.  There are many things that as archivists we prioritize for any given collection; such as: preservation, cataloging (providing intellectual control and accessibility), and outreach of that collection to the communities that may benefit from the collection's availability.  The Freer|Sackler Archives is very pleased to be able to provide easy online access to our scholars and friends across the globe, and we were honored to be able to share the news of these resources to our colleagues in person at the Museum fur Islamische Kunst.  The Ernst Herzfeld project is far from over, and we look forward to working with our colleagues closely in the years to come.

Rachael Cristine Woody
Freer|Sackler Archives 

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