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.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Archives Bailouts

In an article by Holland Cotter, “Museums Look Inward for Their Own Bailouts, New York Times, January 11, 2009, we gain a glimpse why many current archives students are nervous about future employment possibilities. Cotter describes the financial plight of many major museums. “Major art museums in Detroit, Newark and Brooklyn are prime examples” of the challenges these museums are facing. “Forged a century ago or more from idealism and dollars, they are American classics, monuments to Yankee can-do and, in the case of Detroit and Brooklyn, can-do-better-than-Europe. As latecomers to the culture game, American museums had to buy art fast and big, and they did. Their fabulous collections are our national treasures.” And many of them have archives and employ archivists. Cotter recounts how these venerable institutions have been trying to gain new audiences and, of course, new sources of funding. Cotter concludes his argument with this plea: “Sooner rather than later, given the state of the economy, he may not have any choice. For our older, underprivileged, underloved museums, this is the silver lining of hard times. These institutions have the art, the real thing. They have the space; if not much. With luck they have scholarly expertise and curatorial imagination, which they should value like gold. Now is the time, if ever there was one, to look within and bring forth what’s there. People will come. And bigger, richer, less adventurous museums will follow.”

Before anyone tosses in the towel, however, they should read Marjorie Garber’s engrossing Patronizing the Arts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), examining government, corporate, university, and public support for the arts as well as the arts as a business or vocation. Garber, the prolific literary scholar, traces the changing support of the arts and the attitudes of artists, curators, museum trustees, and a variety of museum and cultural benefactors. There is considerable discussion about the transformation of the arts from an amateur pastime to professional status and positioning within the university (essentially making Garber’s book another contribution to the notion of professional education in the modern university, and, thus, additionally relevant to the archival field with its growing but still slippery hold in the academy). Her facile examination of the arts as compared to the sciences makes it doubly interesting for archivists. For example, Garber reflects, “I tend to resist the idea that art is ‘good for you,’ or ‘makes you a better person,’ or ‘improves society,’ or indeed does anything in this ethical-liberal realm. Art is. If it does, if it is performative, what it performs is itself, not some act of social adhesion. Nonetheless, I have often found myself saying, to colleagues who wonder what the place of the creative or ‘making’ arts is in a university setting, that art is what the scientists – and political scientists and diplomats – are saving the world for” (p. 152). Since so many graduate archival education programs are in library and information schools, with many of these changed into Information Schools, these are words and a strategy worth reflecting on (especially since archivists have often struggled how to describe the societal worth of their mission and the documents preserved as part of it).

For sure, given these volatile financial times, the archival community needs to reflect on how it defines and communicates its mission. I am not so sanguine as Cotter that people will come to archives and other cultural institutions, especially if the doors are locked and the lights turned off. Garber’s book, written before these troubles, is a book to read and mull over.