Bridging Museums and Archives, an Interview with Todd Mayberry on Implementing a Long Range Preservation Plan in a Museum Archives

For my assignment I chose to interview Todd Mayberry who is a graduate of the University of Washington’s Museology Program.  Todd had the daunting task of implementing an archives preservation plan for the Burke Museum’s Ethnology Department in completion of his Master’s degree project.  As part of his project, Todd had to reconcile how traditional archives and museum archives are approached differently and produce a coherent product to both archival and museum standards.  Todd has had a long history of leadership and service in the non-profit, public service realm with over a decade of professional experience with the Minnesota Historical Society, the Burke Museum and currently the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington where he is currently serving a multitude of capacities and duties with the JCCW.

 

How did you become interested in the Burke’s archival collection?

I became interested in the Burke Museum’s Ethnology Department’s archival collection due to the careful prodding of the Department’s collection manager – and, at the time, my boss – Rebecca “Becky” Andrews. In the preceding two years, two fellow Museology Graduate Program students had both completed, respectively, an inventory and a long-range preservation plan for the Archives as part of their thesis projects. Thanks to both Becky and funding through my program, I was hired to implement the first year of the preservation plan and quickly determined, in the very positive sense, that I had my work cut out for me. Firstly, several thousand records were either accessioned or accrued to existing collections since the inventory took place. Secondly, the long range preservation plan addressed the preservation needs of only several hundred of the nearly 50,000 records that constituted the overall archival holdings.

 

Can you tell us about your thesis?

To put a preservation management plan into action, I realized that an assessment and further planning was required. So I took a deep breath and enrolled in a Managing Archival Collections course through the University of Victoria’s Cultural Resource Management Program while also participating in archival preservation workshops. Nine months later, the products of my thesis included: an assessment report on the archival collections, environmental conditions, policy and procedures, and site; a series of planning recommendations to address managing, caring for, and providing access to the archival collections; a refined finding aid based off of a comprehensive inventory of the collections; and a how-to guide to put a long-range preservation plan into action.     

 

Can you describe the difference between library versus museum archives?

I really wrestled with this very question throughout my thesis project. Ultimately, there should be no difference between an archives within a museum and an archives within a library. However, as far as processing is concerned, there is a great divide between a museum collections manager and a trained archivist.

 

What were some of the challenges you faced in processing the Burke’s archives? 

My master’s project was rooted in providing the answers to how museologists can follow archival best practices when faced with the fundamental challenges, let alone the staffing and funding realities, of managing a small archives in a museum. On one hand, the Burke Museum’s Ethnology Archives was neglected, in part, due to funding realities – simply put, an archives within a museum can fall down the priority list. On the other hand, the rules that might apply to museum collections differ considerably when it comes to managing an archival collection. Museologists get preservation and care, but, for example, they don’t necessarily understand the implications of splitting a collection. As per my professional museological training, one of my greatest challenges was retraining myself according to SAA best practices.

 

How has that experience helped you professionally?

I now work for the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington here in Seattle which has a library, special collections, institutional archives and a museum. For me, without my experience working with the Burke’s Ethnology Archives, I wouldn’t have been prepared to address the management and care of these unique collection areas.

 

How do you see the Burke’s archives being utilized?

Well, that question is really up to the Burke Museum to answer. Access by the public is an ongoing issue for the Archives. For one, a great deal of the collections exists on a finding aid but are not catalogued in a searchable online collections management system. Another challenge is if materials are requested, access is limited by available hours and staff. But I have to emphatically state that the research value of the Archives is significant. There are collections that have been buried in that storage room that, thanks to the dedication of the department’s collections manager, work-study students, interns and volunteers, are just beginning to be uncovered and become publicly accessible.   

 

Do you see potential for digitalization?

The Ethnology Department has been very good with scanning collections consisting of photographic prints and negatives within their collection. However, as with all archival collections, the sheer volume of this collection area, in this case over 15,000 records, requires being selective with this time-consuming activity. Beyond that, reformatting of at-risk media – such as cellulose acetate film displaying early stages of vinegar syndrome – has been an issue. And born digital materials come with their inherent challenges.   

 

What work needs to continue to be done?

 I left the Burke Museum’s Ethnology Department after implementing the first year of their long-range preservation plan. The money simply ran out to fund my position. Stewardship of an archival collection requires a long-term and sustained commitment. In light of a museum that continues to actively collect ethnological archival materials, the need of fully processing a significant backlog, addressing the needs of at-risk materials, providing public access to the collections, and so on, the day-to-day work doesn’t end.

 

Can you describe the process of the work involved?

 The process of the work involved long hours and an attention to detail.

 

Can you describe any limitations you faced when working with the archives?

Again, the issue of money was a limitation in and of itself. That would apply not only for paying for staff time, but also for adequate preservation supplies, reformatting equipment, and the conservation or, at least, the stabilization of the most at-risk materials.

 

What professional training do you think the university should offer in conjunction with the museum studies program and the ischool?

Hosting preservation management workshops and offering joint classes seem to be a reasonable next step. Both of our disciplines intersect with the fact that, in the end, most of us will be faced with managing, caring for and providing access to archival collections. By the two programs working together, this can spark the beginning of building our professional relationships with each other, strengthening the bonds between our collecting institutions, and enable us to be better able to serve not only the public but the collections themselves.

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