The Story Behind the Story: How Museum Archives are Becoming Visitor Hotspots

Ashleigh Hibbins - Museum Professional

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Many museums, galleries, and science centers have their own public archives, containing amazing stories and images just waiting to be uncovered. Yet until recently, museum archives have often taken a back seat to permanent galleries and special exhibitions.

Not anymore. Museum archives are grabbing the spotlight for themselves through digital volunteering, behind-the-scenes tours, and special events. No longer an expert-only enclave, archives are quickly becoming visitor destinations in their own right, rather than an added extra.

So how are museums sharing the stores behind the stories? Read on for more.

Crowdsourced Collections Research

Museums around the world are working to digitize as much of their collection as possible. Does that sound like Mission: Impossible for your institution? Volunteer crowdsourcing could be your Ethan Hawke (AKA, your seemingly too-good-to-be-true way around your mission).

Many museum archives already engage volunteers to assist with important tasks on-site, but there’s also a whole world out there (literally) of people who can donate their time and energy online. Institutions such as the Smithsonian and Royal BC Museum have been using crowdsourcing for years to transcribe thousands of digitized historical documents into searchable and readable formats.

Some museums are getting even more creative with their crowdsourcing. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Remember Me project crowdsources image identification to discover what became of child survivors in their photographic collection of people displaced by Nazi persecution.

Crowdsourcing aspects of collections digitization and research can be especially useful for museum archives that are rich in content but lacking in staff and volunteer resources (sound familiar, anyone?). Think of digital crowdsourcing as an alternative form of volunteering that’s accessible to people who can’t physically access your archive, or aren’t available during working hours. Digital volunteering usually requires less training and commitment, so tends to attract more participants. This is all good news because crowdsourcing projects can accommodate as many volunteers as your server and chosen platform can handle. Don’t forget to make a strategy for ensuring quality and accuracy of the crowdsourced work, like the Smithsonian’s three-step review process.

Don’t think of crowdsourcing as a replacement for in-person volunteering, but as a creative and productive way to engage even more people with your museum’s archives.

Adventures in the Archives

Gallery tours are awesome – but have you ever thought about doing one in your museum archive?

Everyone loves the idea of a backstage pass, and it doesn’t get more exclusive than exploring museum treasures normally hidden from view. The Natural History Museum is acing this approach with tours of their vast zoological archive. We can’t imagine anything more memorable than close encounters with the Museum’s 22 million preserved animal specimens, including some collected by Charles Darwin himself.

Darwin Centre, home to NHM’s zoological archive. Credit: Delgadosouza via Wikimedia Commons.

On the other end of the spectrum, Antwerp’s Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) has flipped the behind-the-scenes tour on its head by showcasing collections storage in the main galleries. This option clearly isn’t available for every institution, but it’s a great example of letting visitors discover the normally hidden aspects of a museum.

Visible Storage gallery at MAS. Credit: Ashleigh Hibbins.

Archive tours are also a great way to engage high school and university students with building their research skills and career development.

Show-and-tell redux

Remember how exciting show-and-tell was in kindergarten? Well, imagine getting to participate in an adult version, but with way cooler objects than your favorite stuffed animal (sorry, Teddy).

That’s exactly what some museum archives are already doing to engage more visitors with collections not on display. Design Museum Danmark delves into an object or designer in their library on Design Wednesdays, and Tate Britain hosts themed Show and Tell events featuring sketches, letters, photos, and other objects from their extensive library and archive.

With thousands of unique photographs, documents, and objects tucked away in boxes and stacks, we can’t think of a better place than a museum archive to reinvent show-and-tell.

In the Limelight

Museum archives are really starting to step into the limelight – but not without challenges along the way. Concerns about conservation, security, space constraints and staff resources can make public engagement with archives trickier than in the rest of the museum. And beyond practical considerations, archives are still battling the perception that they are inaccessible to the public, relevant only to professional researchers, curators, and academics.

But as the old saying goes, nothing worth doing is ever easy. By engaging with new audiences and becoming more inclusive, archives are ensuring their relevance in the future and making museums even more awesome, one story at a time.

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