Archival Pursuit

August 13, 2012

I ended up in the archives by chance. I was hoping to land a summer museum internship, so I leapt at the chance to work anywhere in the Penn Museum. When I was assigned to the archives, I didn’t know what to expect. I pictured myself looking scholarly, wearing glasses, going through the personal files of somebody famous. Instead I’ve carried heavy boxes, laughed at ridiculous images that survived the ages and raged at computer programs when they refused to work for me. Every job must have hidden depths but not so many are actually hidden in old boxes.

I had been to the museum archives once before. Back then, as a lowly freshman, my jaw dropped at the room. It looks like a cross between Henry Higgins’ library and Dumbledore’s office, with old-fashioned ironwork and huge hanging lamps. The ceiling in the museum archive department arches over the large room stuffed with boxes, papers and other oddities that ended up there, relics of ancient expeditions, slowly fading into history themselves. The room is clearly a remnant of the old days of hand-crafted iron staircases and insignias.

The Penn Museum Archives, ca. 1995
The Penn Museum Archives, ca. 1995. Not much has changed.

Most people are pretty confused about what occurs in Archives. My housemates this summer were very confused as to what I do at work. Zach asked, “But isn’t it just a library? Are you shelving books or what?”

Working here I learned so much respect for the people who are dedicated to this work and have mentally mapped the archive’s contents and treasures. Alex Pezzati and Eric Schnittke are true keepers of knowledge.  Alex walks around with encyclopedic knowledge of his domain. Researchers constantly wander in asking for very specific items and he immediately heads off to its location, without consulting any reference. The bits and pieces he helps find turn into papers and books, spreading information. Alex is the comic to Eric’s straight man and they banter over sports and collections and both constantly make fun of their poor interns.

Over the summer, I worked on two collections and a torturous amount of card catalogue entries. I frequently commiserate with the poor interns in the ‘60s who originally typed the cards. As an archaeology major, I’ve dealt with a lot of sifting for clues but this time it was as more of a literary detective than Indiana Jones.

Going through my collections, I felt like I befriended the authors of the works I was reading. I nearly threw a fit when I thought Francis Steele, my favorite archaeologist on the Nippur dig (Iraq, 1948-1952), was not getting the recognition he deserved. The man was a brilliant epigrapher, able to translate tablets on sight, and he looked just like Neil Patrick Harris in 1952. You couldn’t make this up. Lunchtime conversation among the archives crowd ranged from who killed the most silverfish, horrible bugs that eat paper, to the torrid affairs we uncovered.

Francis R. Steele
On The Joint Expedition at Nippur, 1950
From Right to Left, Mohammed Ali, Francis Steele and Bob Maston

The archive is full of hidden treasures. Anyone who walks in gets shown something beyond what they’re looking for. Funny pictures, small objects and nasty letters abound, if only you know where to look. And that’s not to speak of the photos. Particularly memorable for me is one of an anthropologist being taught to pull taffy. Let’s just say he didn’t look appetized. Or energized, for that matter.

Ruben Reina
Ruben Reina in Sacapulas, Guatemala in 1963, making taffy.

Archives are the basis of all research. We hold records of past findings and events, storing invaluable information for future generations. And what’s more, we even hold some people’s more personal records. Beside reams of field notes, we have love letters and diary entries and caricatures.

We don’t deal with artifacts but we deal with the information at its source. My friend Gina Gariffo, another summer intern, unearthed the receipt for the Penn Museum’s famous crystal ball. I was shocked to learn it had been purchased from Wanamaker’s department store, in 1927, when it had an antiques department. If the provenance was ever questioned, we could dig through the files and produce the department store receipt, if you can believe it.

I think my favorite part of the summer was when the “Anthropologists in the Making” kids came to get a look at the archives. As he does whenever anyone visits, Alex set up some of the popular pieces. There’s an original plan of the museum, which is always accompanied by the tragic story of money running out, as told by Alex.

Watercolor by Charles Z. Klauder of the proposed design for the University of Pennsylvania Museum (Free Museum of Science and Art), 1896. Original design for the museum building.

There’s a map from the 1930s guessing how the Philly area must have looked before colonial times. There are a few portraits of Indian chiefs in full regalia, a medical kit from the turn of the century and for the big finish, pictures of Chinese pirates getting executed. The executioners are even wearing pith helmets.

The kids obviously oooed and aaahed, even when some of the group got rowdy, but my favorite part was when a few stayed behind, pressing Alex for more information about the pictures that seemed to come out of nowhere and had such great stories. I love seeing others get as excited about something as I am. Because hey, the pirate picture was pretty awesome.

So stop by the archives sometime. Email Eric, because he checks his email compulsively, and ask to have a look around. I’m certain that whatever your interest is, you can find something fascinating that’s not on display. And maybe that makes it better.