I completed my master’s in archive administration in September of last year and felt well and truly ready to begin my journey into the archive world. However, much like many new professionals, I found this to be easier said than done.
After a number of interviews, I saw a job advertised at a museum close to where I grew up on the North York Moors. Although it didn’t ask for any archive qualifications, or mention archives in any way, I decided to go for it. It was a 16-month project role, based in their collections, and centred around a large bequest left to the museum. Although not an archivist post by any means, I found that my skills in cataloguing, description and databases were transferable to the qualities they were looking for. Luckily, they agreed, and I was offered the Documentation Assistant role.
My museum project started in the same way many archive projects do – facing a daunting number of unorganised boxes. The only difference being that these boxes were filled with a huge array of items and objects as well as photographs and documents. Photography and radio equipment, cine-reels and gramophone records, huge swathes of books, and countless personal items ranging from watercolours to boules balls. I set to organising myself and the project in the standard way of time plans and a range of short to long term goals, working initially to rationalise and then to document.
From where I stand now, I have just about completed these first two steps, and I am beginning to plan the ordering of preservation materials, the re-boxing of items, and the creation of records on the museum database. Again, I am finding my archive experience in storage and collections care to be extremely valuable.
Although my original skill set has been incredibly useful, and there are similarities in approach, I must stress that museums and archives are far from identical. There are separate sets of standards, accreditation and legislation. Items are organised differently, and databases follow a much less hierarchical setup. I would be lying if I said I never felt a sense of guilt for not adhering to respect des fonds or using various subsections whilst cataloguing. It felt like a catch-22 situation, where it seemed that archives would never accept my museum experience and yet I would never be fully accepted into the museum world with my archive background.
In a moment of impeccable timing, the Archives and Records Association advertised the formation of a new subgroup – the Section for Archives and Museums. This section aims to highlight the connection between collections care in archives and museums and bolster communication between the two areas. I recently attended their first training day in London, titled ‘The Same but Different’: Museum Collection Management for Archivists. As someone with a foot in both camps, I found it exciting (and rather relieving) that the two disciplines seem to be coming closer together.
Although I have not found myself in a traditional archivist position, I am still able to harness skills and knowledge from my archive experience. The museum and archive worlds do have their differences, but much like my friends who have gone into records management or data protection, I can expand and develop skills related to archiving as well as bringing other skills to the table. For example, museums have a substantial visitor-facing role, so I am learning more about the use of exhibitions and interpretation. With outreach being increasingly important to archive repositories, this will be a useful skill to have. Instead of the initial guilt, I am now confident that the skills I am developing from both sides will be beneficial to me as I go forward in my career. Non-traditional experience is something to be celebrated and can only serve to enrich ourselves and the archive workforce in general.
Holly Smith, Documentation Assistant, Ryedale Folk Museum.