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Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Reconnecting Through Old Collections: Or, Why You Should Milk the Archives

Of all the pontification, witty lines, and great advice presented in my college speech class, one line stuck with me to this day. Delivered in the midst of an otherwise unmemorable speech, the line was simple and poignant. “Milk your grandparents.” Now, this advice was, it should be made clear, not to be taken literally; rather, he was advising that we, as college students, take time to sit down with our family members, listen to their stories, and, in doing so, make them ours. Much as it was important in the novel The Giver, written by Lois Lowry and published in 1993, this work of transmission, of passing down stories and emotions to the next generation, is still of utmost importance. By keeping our cultural memory alive, we are maintaining that which makes us truly human.

Now, you might ask, what does milking your grandparents have to do with the Smithsonian Institution? Moreover, why is this blog philosophizing about cultural transmission being posted during Archives Month? The answer to this is simple; I am proposing that we, as scholars, historians, and enthusiasts alike should think of archives in much the same way that we do our family’s stories, recognizing that much of their power comes from them staying within the public’s collective memory. In a way, this emphasis on public memory has already been emerging within the museum world, at least among scholars. Frequently, museums and archives, such as those whose collections are highlighted on this blog, are labeled under the broad category of memory institutions. This, however, does not go far enough. To keep something as part of our cultural memory, we must do more than merely preserve artifacts and documents in vaults and basements. Rather, these items need to be regularly accessed, touched, and read for them to continue to be valuable to the nation’s collective understanding of the world and its past. To be honest, this is a task far too big to place on the shoulders of archivists and curators alone—even though they have been doing great work! This work, which I like to call “milking the archives,” is most effectively done by members of the public and others who can ingest these often forgotten stories and, in doing so, return them to the public memory.

To illustrate this, it is helpful to look at the Francis Mair Collection, which several colleagues and I are currently processing. A member of the industrial design firm Landor and Associates, Inc., Francis Mair (or Fran, as he was known), had a keen interest in the history of his craft. This interest would draw him, eventually, to a position at the head of the Landor firm’s Museum of Packaging Antiquities. Housed in Landor and Associates’ unique headquarters (the firm operated many of its executive functions out of a retired steamboat named Klamath, which rested permanently near Pier 5 of San Francisco Bay), the museum collected, often through Mair’s business connections, a large amount of items, recording the history of packaging in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Documented well, with its story previously told, the museum is not, however, what I seek to highlight; rather, I want to bring forward a story that, even within Smithsonian circles, was forgotten. This story is the collaboration between the late National Museum of American History curator David Shayt and Mair as they worked to build the Museum of Packaging Antiquities.

In this photograph, ca.1990s, used courtesy of Alison Oswald, David Shayt can be seen holding a Holles Allen Experimental Bow, one of the many items he was responsible for acquiring, preserving, and curating at the National Museum of American History.

In processing the Francis Mair Collection, I noticed several letters that were written on letterhead from the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology (the former name of the National Museum of American History). After looking more closely through the letters, I realized that they spanned several years, starting before David Shayt had been employed by the Smithsonian. In fact, the letters start with a copy of Shayt’s resume, presumably the one with which he applied to work with Mair. Shayt’s resume notes that, even while completing military service abroad, he still found ways to work within the museum field, assisting with several exhibitions.

Resume: David Shayt, ca. 1977. Francis Mair Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

The letters show a deepening relationship between Shayt and Mair, one in which Shayt, as the younger partner, had much both to learn and to offer. One of the highlights is a unique letter from Mair to Shayt’s parents, noting that David had asked Mair to “express to [Shayt’s parents his] feelings about [David’s] presence here, his activities, and how delighted we are to have him here.” Later in the letter, Mair notes that “the changes for the better that he is making are most welcome to us because we have very little budgetwise to do this sort of thing.”

Letter from Francis Mair to Mr. and Mrs. Shayt, August 10, 1977. Francis Mair Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

This phrase, “very little budgetwise,” would prove to be the item, however, that Shayt’s father most focused on. Despite noting that “Both Mrs. Shayt and I are . . . happy to hear that David’s contribution is of no small significance,” he would still spend the bulk of his letter struggling openly over his son’s decision to enter the museum field. Writing back, he uses the above quote from Mair’s letter to explain why he “can’t get enthralled at the prospect of David [his son] mapping out for himself a museum career.” In this, Shayt’s father echoes the
questioning that many parents have surely done over the career choices of their children, expressing deep-seated fears about the remuneration provided by various types of work.

Letter from Alvin Shayt to Francis Mair, August 15, 1977. Francis Mair Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Another letter, however, tells a far more positive tale. In this letter, written by Shayt to Fran Mair, he tells of his first period of time working with the Smithsonian’s collections. Commenting that he still looks back fondly upon the summer he spent working at the Landor Museum of Packaging Antiquities, he also notes the vast disparity in resources between the two museums, stating “I still feel humbled & a bit intimidated after having left so recently the Packaging Museum.” Beyond this, the letter is warm and kind, noting that despite the weather turning “awfully cold,” he is “still managing to hoof it down to Constitution Ave. to the museum.”

Letter from David Shayt to Francis Mair, November 16, 1977. Francis Mair Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Over his career working at the Smithsonian, Shayt would collect, document, and tell many stories, touching a large number of people both within the Archives Center and throughout the Smithsonian Institution. The story of his time with Mair, however, was lost from the collective memory. Only through a series of interactions, of milking the staff of the Archives Center, of milking the documents within the Archives Center, has this chunk of life been brought to life again. This work is what is what I refer to in advocating milking the archives, that of returning good stories back to the forefront of people’s minds.

If you have a desire to keep stories like this one alive, know that the door to the Archives Center is open to any researcher who would like to seek out and retell some of the lost stories and, in doing so, Milk the Archives for all they are worth. For more information on the Francis Mair Collection and all others held by the Archives Center, feel free to head over to our website or send us an email. We would love to hear from you! We only ask that, prior to coming in to research, you make an appointment, so that we can more effectively serve you.

Kevin DeVries, Archives Center Intern
National Museum of American History, Archives Center

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