SAA12 – Session 603 The Objects of Our Affection

by infallibleminds

After session 510, the SAA Business Meeting, and a lengthy lunch, I switched gears from thinking about community-based archives to a topic I am much more familiar with: 3-D archival objects. I swung on over to session 603, titled The Objects of Our Affection: Arranging and Describing Artifacts in Archival Collections.

Many of us work in repositories in which we often, either out of necessity or lack of expertise, neglect some of our most unique treasures: three-dimensional objects. Finding the time and resources to deal with these materials can be challenging, especially to those whose training and education often focused on archival materials in paper format. This session focuses on three different kinds of repositories and their strategies for identifying, describing, and managing their objects.

As part of my preservation work for the Giorgio di Sant’Angelo collection at UCLA, I dealt with some very unusual three-dimensional objects (1968 and 1970 Coty Awards, 1975 Tommy Award, 1976 Rex Award, wallpaper hanging of red bird, 2 tapestry drawings, strips of square Swarovski rhinestones, and velvet embroidery swatches, to name a few). The preservation and storage of these objects were both the most rewarding and challenging aspects of processing this collection, providing me with practical experience in the topic this panel was about to discuss.

Giorgio di Sant’Angelo

Lynette Stoudt, Senior Archivist at the Georgia Historical Society started off the discussion. Her experience with artifacts dating back to the Revolutionary War revealed these key points:

  • with collections containing artifacts, the use of archival standards vary
  • objects associated with an archival collection versus those that are not are cataloged differently or “receive different numbers”
  • artifacts are often described at the collection level, making it difficult for collection users to understand or access these unique materials


The next panelist, Donnelly Lancaster Walton, Archival Access Coordinator at the University of Alabama, discussed these points:

  • an artifact can be defined as any three-dimensional object within a collection
  • Archivists Toolkit can integrate artifacts into manuscript collections by linking the object records to the collection’s “parent” record, making artifacts more searchable
  • many teachers request artifacts from archival collections to use as teaching tools, so it is important for archivists to find a way to link artifacts to the collections they come from in order to better reflect the contextual and historical value of these objects

The final speaker was Brad Bauer, Chief Archivist US Holocaust Memorial Museum. His main points included:

  • historically, artifacts are separately housed from archival collections due to differences in preservation needs, sizes, shapes, etc.
  • the challenge for archivists is to connect or reconnect artifacts with the archival collections they are associated with

My (personal) conclusion: archival collections are comprised of more than just two dimensional paper manuscripts, but our archival education and training do not necessarily reflect this. The challenge for archivists today is to understand how traditional archival practices can be modified to properly identify, manage, and provide access to artifacts, while also acknowledging the importance of linking these artifacts back to their respective collections. Archivists, who are taught never to describe collections at the item level, can learn a lot from museum professionals whose primary function is to focus on individual artifacts or item level description. Archival collections that include artifacts must, through shifts in archival appraisal, descriptive, and preservation practices, more closely integrate those techniques used in museums. In doing so, the growing nexus between the goals and activities of these two types of collecting institutions begins to reveal itself.