Internship / Margaret Alexander / Processing

A Museum Perspective on Archival Practice

Written by Kelly Hughes, Former ICFA Intern (Fall 2012-Summer 2013) and Graduate of the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University

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House of the Figured Basin, Utica (from the Margaret Alexander Collection, Courtesy of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks)

As part of my graduate program in Museum Studies in George Washington University, I was an intern at the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) of Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection for the past year. I focused on a collection of documents created by Margaret Alexander concerning ancient pavement mosaics in Tunisia. Alexander was an archaeologist who led a project called the Corpus des Mosaїques de Tunisie, or CMT, which was launched in 1967 to create a catalog of ancient Roman and Late Antique mosaics in Tunisia. The collection consists of 40 boxes of documents including photographs, field books, archaeological reports, research notes, and drawings of ground plans and recreations of buildings from the sites Utica, El Jem, Thuburbo Majus, and Carthage. In addition to the records related to the CMT project, the collection also includes documents on Alexander’s personal research for her dissertation on tomb mosaics in Tunisia.

My principal objective for the collection was to finish the collection arrangement and finalize the finding aid and inventory, which had been started by a previous intern. I started this task by familiarizing myself with the collection – going through all the boxes and checking whether the finding aid faithfully matched what is in the collection. This was sometimes difficult for me because the corpus itself is written in French, as are some of the documents, and it required a lot of translation to fully understand what they are about. After this task, I began to organize the collection with the help of my supervisor, ICFA Archivist Rona Razon. The collection is currently organized by site and then roughly in chronological order. I think the hardest part of this assignment was to arrange the collection in a way that made it accessible to researchers, while still faithfully representing the way that Alexander had created the collection. Part of this was because the collection was created over three decades and the materials in each series were often so different. This meant there was little consistency from series to series, something that I often strive to achieve as a graduate of Museum Studies. It was also challenging to work on the larger scale of this collection, instead of working with objects on a singular level as I have previously done in museums. I often found myself getting bogged down looking at each document as its own object, instead of thinking of the collection in terms of folders and boxes that represent a single unit.

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House of the Figured Basin, Utica (from the Margaret Alexander Collection, Courtesy of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks)

After completing the collection arrangement, I began rehousing the collection, including replacing folders and boxes with archival-quality containers where necessary. One major step to help protect the collection was placing the photographs and layouts (materials in pre-publication form) that were created during the CMT project in Mylar sleeves. This protects the images when in use by researchers and keeps the labels on the layouts with the images they are associated with, even if they detach from the paper. Since there are over 10,000 photographs in the four series that are part of the CMT project, it was a time-consuming process. But, it was definitely worth it in the end, as many of the images are of the excavation itself and cannot be replicated.

During my time with the collection, I discovered a number of interesting things, including the role of the Bardo National Museum in Tunis with the CMT project (http://www.bardomuseum.tn/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=180&Itemid=93&lang=en). It was also fascinating to learn what was created during the excavation through the existing archival materials. All of the excavated sites (Utica, El Jem, Thuburbo Majus and Carthage) have field books and work journals that recorded the excavation of the various locations within the site. For instance, Utica and Thuburbo Majus contain “finds books” and catalogues of what was excavated at the site in addition to journals. Utica in particular is very thorough, with “finds books,” “finds catalogue,” and “accessions books,” which document the artifacts by site and type, including find spots, descriptions, and cross references the field book information.

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From the “Finds Catalogue”, Utica (from the Margaret Alexander Collection, Courtesy of the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks)

One of the most interesting discoveries I made was when I was asked to look at some negatives that were in the ICFA collection and believed to be associated with the CMT, but donated by Margo Van Allen. In looking through the negatives, I was able to determine that they were images from the Utica site. But, more importantly, I was able to connect the images to the copy of the “finds catalogue” in the collection. The image below of negative BF.N.2003.MVA.0255 is a photograph documenting the entry in the “finds catalogue” above, PO 102. This not only connected the Margo Van Allen negatives to the CMT project, but also provided more information about the artifacts found in the Utica excavation than was previously known.

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BF.N.2003.MVA0255

In conclusion, working with the archive of Margaret Alexander and the Corpus of Tunisian Mosaics was a great introduction to the field of archives. While I sometimes had a difficult time approaching the collection with a stronger museum studies background, my time here in ICFA was invaluable. To see more examples from the archive of Margaret Alexander and the Corpus of Tunisian Mosaics, please visit the online exhibit: From Clearing to Cataloguing: The Corpus of Tunisian Mosaics.

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4 thoughts on “A Museum Perspective on Archival Practice

  1. Really good read, thank you for making me aware of the Corpus des Mosaïques de Tunisie. You never know when/where you’ll discover more knowledge about your own country :)

  2. Pingback: In-between mosaics: Getting to know North Africa | icfa

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