Written by Ameena Mohammad, former Pre-Columbian Archives Assistant (2013-2014); Edited by ICFA Staff
In the Spring of 2013, Lisa Trever assessed and inventoried the archival materials in the collection Christopher B. Donnan and Donna McClelland Moche Archive, 1963-2011. Then in October 2013, I was hired as the first Pre-Columbian Archives Assistant to fully process the collection.
Aside from its subject matter and large volume of approximately 116,000 items, several facets make the Moche Archive unique. The Moche Archive contains 97 boxes of photographic material, including contact prints, photographic and reprographic prints, slides, and negatives.
Christopher Donnan and Donna McClelland chose to arrange the collection in two ways: by iconographic categories (meaning the image themes constructed by Donnan) and by “archive source codes” (often, these denote the location or the source of a vessel, such as a museum, private collection, or an archaeological site):
Getting to know the donor
Christopher B. Donnan began documenting Moche ceramic vessels in order to study their iconography; he recognized the need for a system of analysis as a doctoral student in the 1960s. It was while teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), that Donnan and Donna McClelland transformed the way students studied Moche ceramic vessel iconography. By 1975, Donnan had perfected a technique of photographing the vessels, while McClelland established a system of “rollout” illustration to document iconography using Donnan’s photographs. This process continued for decades at UCLA.
Prior to Dumbarton Oaks’ acquisition of the Moche Archive, the collection was consulted by an estimated 40-50 researchers over a period of 40 years, according to Donnan. Therefore, ICFA’s efforts to organize and document this material to enhance and increase scholarly access is very important!
To understand the collection and the donor himself, my supervisor Rona Razon (ICFA Archivist) and I conducted an interview with Christopher Donnan in April 2014. Donnan confided during the interview that he never imagined how long the process of documenting Moche iconography would take, nor that his photographic archive would become so sizable:
45 years later we’re just beginning to understand [the iconography]. You’re coming and trying to make order out of chaos. Not that [the Moche Archive] was so chaotic, you’ll just have to bear with us, Donna and I; it has inconsistencies… wiser to do this now, rather than later.
At the end of our conversation, Donnan expressed delight that ICFA was taking the time to give context to the different elements within the Moche Archive through the creation of a finding aid and by preserving the collection items. It was also evident from our conversation that the Moche Archive changed as Donnan’s and McClelland’s research needs followed different trajectories. For example, Donnan and McClelland re-categorized some of the items, expanded categories based on research interests (e.g., Category 80: Specific Individuals and Category 01: Human Heads are also known as Donnan’s “Portrait Vessels”), and edited the category names. Donnan and McClelland also re-numbered some of the fineline drawings.
Overall, Donnan’s visit to ICFA provided me the opportunity to gain further insight into his mindset. At times, while I worked with the collection it was as though I was “trying to get into the mindset of the donors and psycho-analyze their decision making,” as described by one of my colleagues. In a lot of ways, processing and providing access for this collection has involved fact-finding or playing detective (You’ll see what I mean in my next post…).
Processing and rehousing the collection
My understanding of the material grew as I continued to assess the collection and add information to the draft finding aid before its August release. During this process, I provided detailed descriptions on how the series groups are linked with each other and how to decipher the various codes in the collection, such as the fineline drawing codes, as shown in this example:
Folder 892: “032 – CAS 2 – V – Cat. 92 – NC – P – Donna McClelland”
032: [Drawing number identifier]
CAS 2: [Archive source code: “CAS” corresponds to the repository of the vessel at the time of documentation, Museo Arquelógico Cassinelli, Trujillo, Peru; “CAS 2” corresponds to a specific sheet of negatives]
V: [Larco Phase]
Cat. 92: [Category 92 Presentation Theme / Sacrifice Ceremony]
NC: [Not catalogued]
Donna McClelland: [Illustrator]
In addition, I continued ICFA’s steps toward long-term preservation of the collection. For example, I rehoused the 35 mm contact prints (Subgroup 1, Series 2) due to the materials’ fragile state. The contact prints were individually cut up and glued onto boards. Due to time and constant use, the prints have started to detach from the boards. Now, the contact prints reside in custom-fit polyester sleeves and are stored flat in 10 acid-free document storage boxes.
I have also rehoused and inventoried 11,776 slides (Subgroup 1, Series 5) and approximately 4,000 negatives out of an estimated 12,000 negative strips (Subgroup 1, Series 6). While the task of rehousing and recording these items proved rather daunting and time-consuming due to the volume of the slides and negatives, it was essential for me to preserve and especially document the data found on the slide mounts and on the old negative sleeves as they included details that are not evident in the photographic prints.
While rehousing these items, I realized that capturing the information on the slide mounts was challenging because I needed to carefully evaluate the meaning of the data, given that the way the donors took notes naturally changed over the decades. The slides are generally organized by archive source codes. A simple example would be: Dumbarton Oaks could be labeled “DO” or “Dumbarton.” However, other source codes can get more complicated, especially in the context of other labeling like number identifiers, dates, and detailed notes.
The negatives also had to be rehoused because they were not properly stored. As you can see below, the original sleeves covered only part of the negatives, and so the ends of the strips were exposed, curling, and unprotected.
To achieve this task, my colleague Jessica Cebra, ICFA Departmental Assistant, helped me in the documentation and rehousing of the slides and negatives.
Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I could not rehouse all of the 12,000 negative strips in the collection. And so, future rehousing will include re-sleeving the remaining 2/3 of the negative strips, as well as re-housing more than 2,000 photographic prints of fineline drawings.
These endeavors of rehousing are necessary, so that eventually the archival boxes filled with negatives and slides can be moved to ICFA’s cold storage for long-term preservation. At the same time, ICFA has made strides in what future steps should be taken in order to increase access to this visual material.
The Moche Archive is the first substantial Pre-Columbian archival collection in ICFA. In a way, ICFA is trying to do what previous Dumbarton Oaks staff did before us when they were acquiring, studying, and making Byzantine collections accessible for scholarly research. Thus, the Moche Archive is going to be a model for all future Pre-Columbian collections in ICFA. Due to the vast amount of material in the Moche Archive and its complex organizational structure, ICFA has decided to release the finding aid in stages. While a version of currently 218 pages was recently released, it was through processing the collection that ICFA staff recognized the need to develop more extensive cross-references to better enable scholarly research of this rich material. Eventually, ICFA will add the finding aid to the department’s collection management system AtoM@DO and this will enhance intellectual access to an even more dynamic level. AtoM@DO will allow for faster searching of the collection and hopefully more intuitive navigation among interconnected groups of material organized by different categorization systems.