Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

What About Public Trust?

Not too many years, the Harvard Program for Art Museum Directors sponsored a series of lectures about art museums and the notion of the public trust. As James Cuno, editor of the results of these lectures published as Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), ISBN 10:0-691-12781-6, argues as a starting point for these lectures, “The more art museums look like multinational corporations and the more their directors sound like corporate CEOs, the more they risk being cast by the public in the same light” (p. 17). In other words, such behavior throws into question just what public good art museums address (if any, anymore). What is fascinating to me as an archivist is the greater dexterity by which art museum directors and those of other museums can discuss the idea of public good. A few examples from Whose Muse? will demonstrate my point.

James Cuno, in his full essay in this volume, states this about the mission of art museums: “The public has entrusted in us the authority and responsibility to select, preserve, and provide its access to works of art that can enhance, even change, people’s lives. And in turn, we have agreed to dedicate all of our resources – financial, physical, and intellectual – to this purpose. Art museums are a public trust.” Cuno continues, “let us be reminded that we can best earn that trust simply, by remaining open as places of refuge and spiritual and cultural nourishment. In museums people can experience a sense of place and be inspired, one object at a time, to pursue the ideal of objectivity and be led from beauty to justice by a lateral distribution of caring” (p. 73). What is interesting about this assessment is that archivists might argue the same about their repositories, but will there be an equal resonance about this from the public? I doubt it. The public simply does not possess the same understanding of archives as art museums.

Glenn D. Lowry, in his essay, demonstrates that the degree of the notion of how well a museum is meeting its public good goal is how well the public understands this situation: “The issue of public trust for art museums, then, can be seen as a question of responsibility, of balancing public expectation with institutional needs. The degrees to which art museums are judged to be acting responsibly is determined in large part by their ability to articulate their role and function in society in a way that the public and media can appreciate and approve of. Within this context it is assumed that art museums will behave in a way that is consistent with the responsibility and trust invested in them by society and codified by the privileges they receive as not-for-profit institutions” (p. 145). If this is indeed the way that the notion of public good is measured and evaluated, then archives and archivists may be in trouble, since there is a distinctive lack of this kind of understanding.

Finally, here is another observation worth discussion as to the applicability to the archives situation. Philippe de Montebello notes, “But it remains vital that visitors come to see the original. This is why I continue to believe, for example, that the electronic outreach engaged by most museums on their Web sites should not ignite concern among us that the public, so glutted with images from our collections, will no longer come to museums to see original works of art. Reproductions, no matter how good, cannot and will not ever replace originals” (p. 153). Can we also say this for archives and manuscript collections? I am not so sure. We tend to have different kinds of researchers, ones that do not always need access to the original records. Or, do they?

What all these statements suggest is the need for the same kind of comments to be made about archives and archival repositories. Such dialogue has been all too rare about the archival mission in society.