Unpacking the Hierarchy
I introduced a colorful, pyramidal, teapot-esque graphic showing “History’s Hierarchy of Purpose” a couple of blog posts ago. I want to spend some time unpacking each of the levels of this hierarchy, so let’s get started with the base of the pyramid, which is Resource Location & Preservation.
Resources That Reveal History
In order to study history and make use of it, we need resources that can reveal that history.
Lots of things can be used as historical resources, probably more things than most of us think can be historical resources and definitely more things than I can list, but here are some examples:
- 3-dimensional artifacts – This is a giant category and can include the chair you are sitting in, the lamp that lights your room, the glass you are drinking from, and the device you are reading this on.
- Brochures, newsletters & other ephemera
- Financial records – Including receipts, tax forms, check registers, bills, etc.
- Buildings & structures
- Archaeological sites
- Charts – Genealogical pedigree charts come to mind, as do charts of health info.
- Letters & journals
- Oral histories
- Works of art
- Sound recordings
- Websites – Including social media sites and the underlying code behind these sites.
- Digital files & documents – Including spreadsheets, digital photos, and infographics.
Locating and Recognizing Historical Resources
In order to use these various resources for historical purposes, you need to be able to locate them and recognize them for their historical merit.
Some of these resources will be easy to locate and their historical merit will be obvious, like newspapers and photographs, but some resources are trickier to find and their historical value may seem questionable.
Let’s take the example of the lamp that lights your room to illustrate its historical merit. It’s right there in your room, so it’s easy to locate. How can you use it to reveal history? Start by examining it carefully and ask yourself a bunch of questions.
What’s its approximate age?
What is it made of?
What style is it?
What kind of light source does it use? (An oil lamp is going to tell you something different from an electric lamp from an historic perspective.)
Is there any kind of maker’s mark on the lamp?
Let’s say you’ve got a mid-century modern electric lamp with an orange lava-glazed pottery base and walnut neck. You know the shade is not original to the lamp because it was shade-less when you bought it. There is no maker’s mark, so you can’t pinpoint an artist or brand. (If this sounds super specific, it’s because my husband and I own a pair of these lamps and I’m looking at one as I describe it.)
Now, maybe by itself, this lamp tells us just a little bit of history. If it’s mid-century modern, that refers to a specific design style and era … the modern, streamlined look of the 1940s-1970s. The lava glaze and color are also of the era.
Where this lamp’s history really shines (pun intended!) is when it is grouped with other lamps of the era. It is the comparison of numerous mid-century modern lamps that will tell us more about the history of design over the time period. A large enough selection of such lamps may also reveal similarities in manufacturers, designers, and materials and finishes used. In examining newspapers and books from the era, the influences that led to the modernist styles of the lamps will be revealed. This review of the wider history provides context for how the orange lava-glazed lamp arose.
Even when using obvious historical resources, such as newspapers, a comparison of such resources to other items from the era, especially 3-dimensional resources, will make the history more tangible. Historical resources are in constant conversation with each other.
Preserving & Locating Historical Resources Within an Institution
My story of the lamp is about locating and recognizing historical resources in the wild. But what about locating historical resources within an institution like a museum?
If an artifact has made its way into the collections of a museum, someone has already made a determination about its historical value. That doesn’t mean everything within a museum’s collection has equal historical value. Some items are going to be more rich in history than others, like the aforementioned newspapers and photographs in comparison to, say, a pair of cottton socks. Pragmatic historians look at how many stories can be told through a particular artifact in order to gauge its historical value. They also think about how many people might want to access that artifact.
After deciding to accept an artifact for the collection, museum staff have to prepare the item for long-term preservation. The goal is to provide conditions that will slow the deterioration of an artifact well into the future.
This might mean a light cleaning and wrapping an item in acid-free tissue, placing it in an acid-free, lignen-free box or envelope, and/or creating a support for it. Preservation techniques vary according to the materials found in the artifact. However, controlling environmental factors like temperature, humidity, light, and dust is important for all artifacts.
Part of accepting an artifact into a museum’s collections is the process of accessioning it. Accession numbers are assigned to artifacts so their provenance (item identity, who donated it, when it was donated, etc.) can be tracked. Museums use software to help them record this information.
Once artifacts are accessioned, they can be placed within a museum’s collections storage areas. How these storage areas are arranged varies by the museum. Many museums place like objects together; others might put items on shelves in the order in which they were received.
No matter the system a museum uses to arrange artifacts, museum staff need to be able to locate items, sometimes on demand. This takes good organization and recordkeeping. An excellent memory also helps.
Most of this is work you don’t see when you walk into a museum, so it’s not uncommon for people to be left with the impression that museum workers don’t do much of anything. For the most part, the public doesn’t get to witness all the effort that has gone into creating an exhibit or pulling a file from an archive that happens to contain the bit of information you were looking for. Trust me, someone, it could be staff or volunteers, has spent countless hours, years, or decades preparing museum resources for your access.
Not the Domain of Museums Alone
Knowing how to locate & preserve historical resources is the basis for the other levels on History’s Hierarchy of Purpose. Everything else on the hierarchy builds off of these skills. But, they are not the domain of museums alone. The location of historical resources, the recognition of their historic merit, and basic preservation methods are also useful skills for the general public, particularly as people move up the hierarchy.
Moving up the hierarchy to Education & Entertainment is a discussion for another day.