The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
"Scrolling" Through Museum Processes
With over a decade of experience appraising and acquiring the Smithsonian's institutional records, it's rare that I come across a type of document I've never seen before.
Cordelia Rose, former registrar at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, now the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City, presented me with one of those rare instances last summer. During a "fit of tidying," she came across two "scrolls" which she had created in 1986 and 1987 to map the information flow surrounding the registration and loans processes. They were then used by a programmer, Jay Vanatta, to create the first automated systems for the museum's collections.
At the time of their creation, Ms. Rose considered these to be working documents and hadn't thought about possible historic value. She had created them quickly, using materials that were convenient for the task at hand, such as post-it notes and sheets of paper glued end to end. The scrolls were simply part of the path to the final product. In her blog post last week, “To Post-it or Not to Post-it,” Kirsten Tyree provides a detailed description of one of the scrolls and the steps undertaken to preserve it.
The Archives has taken a similar stance on what we now refer to as "Life Cycle Management Documents" (key specification and design documents created during the development of an information system). These records must be kept during the lifespan of a system, but one year after the system is replaced, the records may be destroyed.
What makes these scrolls significant is that they have survived. Ms. Rose kept them as teaching tools, but they now represent the many manual processes that were being automated across the Smithsonian and throughout the museum world during the 1980s, few of which are documented in the Archives.
What is also valuable about these scrolls is their subject matter. Most records created by a registrar's office pertain to an individual object, collection, or exhibition. With the exception of collections statistics, there tends to be little documentation within the Archives of the larger scope of a registrar's work or how it is accomplished.
Finally, the personal touches included in these scrolls make them particularly interesting. Ms. Rose illustrated the documents with photographs and thought bubbles as the work progressed. These weren't just maps and workflows, but a celebration of a major and rewarding accomplishment.
- To Post-it or Not to Post-it, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Records and Information Management Month: The Registrar, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives