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A Spotlight on Museum Archives with Ashlynn Prasad

30 May 2024 4:30 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

From municipal and federal government to universities, from religious congregations to community organizations, archivists work in a variety of settings. This year, the ACA blog, In the Field, is setting out to talk to archivists across Canada about the unique joys and challenges of their work environments. We will feature a different type of archives each month, with the objective of showcasing the rich spectrum of archival work

This month we are featuring museum archives. In today’s post, the In the Field blog chats with Ashlynn Prasad, the former Librarian & Archivist at the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

Q: Can you briefly tell us about your academic and professional path? What brought you to the field of archival studies and practice?

Ashlynn: I actually started my archival career as an undergraduate student working in the Special Collections & Archives department of my university, the University of California, Santa Cruz. I worked there for all four years of my undergrad and I had really excellent mentors and supervisors who encouraged me to take on as much responsibility as I had an appetite for, which ended up being quite a lot. They gave me a thorough grounding in all aspects of archival work, and from there I was building on a really solid foundation. At first I was on the fence about pursuing archives as a career because I wasn’t sure I wanted to complete another degree, but by the time I was nearing the end of my bachelor’s degrees, I knew I wanted to keep doing this work and keep advancing in the field. I was also double majoring in History and Literature, which tied in perfectly with the start of my career; I like to say I was the last person to know I was going to become an archivist. I went almost directly into graduate school at the University of British Columbia, where I completed the Master’s of Archival Studies and the Master’s of Library and Information Studies, at the same time working the entire time almost entirely in academic archives. It wasn’t until after graduate school that I pivoted to museum archives, and by that time I had seven years of experience behind me.

Q: What does an average day look like in museum archives?

Ashlynn: When I worked at the Vancouver Maritime Museum, I was the only full-time permanent employee in the Archives department, so there was a lot to do and I’m not sure any two days were ever the same! For the most part, the work was similar to archival work in any context: reference requests, running the reading room, donor relations, appraisal and acquisition, arrangement and description whenever I had time for it, managing small teams of graduate students, and anything else I could do to try to increase the efficiency of my department, since there was so much to do with such limited resources. The day-to-day aspects that were specific to a museum archives included meeting regularly with the curators to discuss long-term preservation and storage plans for all our collections, as well as finding ways in which archival materials could best be represented in exhibitions and programs.

Q: What is your favourite thing about working in a museum archives? What are some of the challenges that are unique to museum archives?

Ashlynn: It was a relatively small organization, and because of that, everything was usually an all-hands-on-deck situation (pun absolutely intended). For me, part of the joy of working in a museum archives was that I got to be involved in museum goings-on beyond the archives department, including working very closely with all the other department heads to organize events, work on grants, support marketing, help out with exhibitions, and plan the future of the museum as a whole. It was exciting to be involved in the life of the museum on a larger scale, and to advocate for the archives within that. Having come to the museum from a background of mostly academic archives, I really enjoyed working in an archives that in many ways felt like it was closer to a broader swath of the community.

Advocating for the archives within the institution presented a unique challenge as well. As we all know, archival work can be expensive, and it was often a struggle to get non-archives peoples in an organization that wasn’t archives-centric to see why something like an expensive storage solution should be prioritized above, for example, something that would get more visitors through the doors. A related challenge was learning how to talk about archives and archival work as the only person in the building who was an archives professional. There’s a certain degree of translation involved: finding ways to limit jargon and say things differently than I would around archival colleagues was necessary to represent the archives well and help everyone see why they should care about them.

Q: What do you wish the public understood better about museum archives?

Ashlynn: One thing that I didn’t realize before I worked in museum archives was that the collections are split between archives and objects: while I managed the archives, the curatorial department managed the object collections. That was actually a relief to me when I first started, because I had never really worked with objects before, and obviously they have their own needs in terms of preservation, description, and access. It was great to work alongside professionals who had the skills and knowledge to handle these objects in their own separate cataloguing system. That was something that I wished was more broadly known, because I was constantly getting donation offers and reference requests for the object collections and the curators were constantly getting the same for archival collections. In an environment where time was such a limited resource that every moment counted, it felt like we were spending too much time forwarding emails back and forth to each other.

Another thing that I wish the public understood better is that museums have collecting mandates, donation procedures, and limited space—sometimes extremely limited—so we’re not necessarily interested in every donation offer. I think people tend to imagine the warehouse scene from Indiana Jones when they think of museum archives in particular, and the reality was often more like one or two open shelves in my unprocessed area and a nonexistent quarantine area. We often had people offering donations or sometimes just dropping things off at the front door overnight, who were then confused and even offended when we followed up to let them know their donation didn’t fall within our collecting mandate (Pacific and Arctic, but not Atlantic) or we needed them to sign our donor paperwork.

Q: Can you tell us about a project you worked on during your time in museum archives? 

Ashlynn: The projects I was most excited about were the ones that opened up access to communities, especially marginalized communities. Because the museum’s collecting mandate included the Arctic, Inuit materials were one of the focuses of our collections. One project I worked on at the beginning of my tenure there was the creation of an Oral History Program, which included a step-by-step manual, resources, checklists, and more. I incorporated a flexible release form designed specifically for oral history interviews with Indigenous individuals: this basically stated that the museum would conduct the interview, but any and all rights to the story and the interview would remain with the interviewee and their kin, and the museum had to seek their permission any time they wanted to use the oral history. I designed the terms of the form to be flexible on a case-by-case basis; interviewees could choose to adjust the release form so that the museum could have usage rights to the audio, but it wasn’t something that we wanted to lobby for or even suggest. I didn’t want it to feel like there were conditions to participating in the interview; I wanted it to feel more like a free service that the museum offered to anyone who wanted to tell their story. Before I left, I was able to oversee the interview of an Inuit elder, who lived in the Arctic and was interviewed in Inuktitut by his great-niece, who sat on our Board of Trustees. Their story was closely connected to the museum because his brother and mother had helped the St. Roch navigate through the Northwest Passage in the early 20th century; the St. Roch is the ship that the museum is essentially built around, and the primary exhibition. They chose to allow the museum to use the interview, and by the time I left, we were working on getting it translated into English so that we could use the audio with subtitles in exhibitions.

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