Feature Archive: A Guide to Museum Archives

Chris Manias is a Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Manchester whose research focusses on human, biological and medical sciences in Europe and the United States from the late-18th to the early-20th century. Museum archives have been pivotal for his research: but how does he find them? how useful are they? and how can other historians use museum archives for their own research? Here, Manias reveals all you need to know.

A Guide to Museum Archives

I’m a historian of science, currently working on a big project on the international history of mammal palaeontology in the period 1880-1950 (click here for more details). The research is funded by a Mid-Career Fellowship from the British Academy, which – as well as serving as official notification that I am no longer a bright young ECR – has generously given me a year of research leave for an international stint of research.

Museum Admin Office
‘Museum Admin Office’ – it’s no Club Med…


The main collections I am using are the archives of museums, and what I’m going to do in this blog is give a brief overview of what doing research in these places is like, what sorts of things they contain, and some specific words on the main collections in France I’ve used. Museum archives contain a wealth of information, not just for historians of science, but also on wider issues around urban society, the role of intellectuals, human engagement with animals, nature and technology, collecting and material culture, colonialism, and many other things! So they are worth heading down to for historians in a whole range of specialisms.

Museum Archives: A General Guide

Museums obviously vary massively in scale, from vast national collections in hugely ornate buildings all the way to small local or private collections in just a few rooms. I’ve found museum staff in all sizes of institution massively helpful, and you really appreciate what they manage to do with frequently limited (and in the current funding environment often diminishing) resources.

Manias photo 1 Desk
sometimes, you’re given a desk

Museums are used to visiting scientists coming to study their objects (and there’s a whole other post that could be written about using their material collections for historical work), but people interested in their institutional archives can be a bit of a novelty. Most museums have a research library (which can be modern, or more atmospheric and nineteenth-century), which is usually where you’ll be working, although in some you’re given a desk in a lab or a fossil storeroom. Being surrounded by dinosaur bones and scientists-at-work definitely adds to the ambiance, and leads to interesting conversations.

In terms of finding the material, larger national collections usually have online catalogues and sometimes online ordering systems. Medium-sized or smaller institutions either have paper finding aids to check on arrival, or no finding aids and you instead rely on the knowledge of the archivist. In a few cases, there has been neither archivist nor finding aid, but collections staff have been very happy to take me to the archives room and let me rummage through the boxes.

Usually you’ll be visiting the museum building itself, which means that breaks, arrival or leaving time can be spent looking at the exhibits (and coming across a specimen that you’ve just been reading the history of is always exciting). However, some museums have moved their libraries and study collections to storehouses way out of town, which can mean a trip to an industrial estate or warehouse district, dodging trucks and hazmat signs on your way in. So museum research is nothing if not variable!

So what can be found in the Museum archive?

Manias photo 2 Endless Boxes
what can you find amongst the rows and rows of boxes?!

The collections in museum archives orientate around two main areas: firstly, the records of the museum itself, dealing with its running, activity and collecting; and secondly, the personal papers of people associated with the museum who donated their documents.

The main sources I tend to use have been the following:

Annual Reports: Most museums produced an annual report describing all the activity conducted in that year, sent to their overseers – which could be a state ministry, municipality, council of trustees, or university. While written for a definite audience (and usually containing requests for more money and space), these document all activities being done by the museum each year, including important acquisitions and research, visitor numbers, staffing, budgets and so on. These are my nuts-and-bolts immediate go-to sources.

Correspondence: Often the bulk of the museum archive consists of letters sent to and from museum staff. These are great sources, allowing you to reconstruct who was in contact with who, how they were interacting, and provide a great deal of personal information and context around projects and debates. Given that museum workers in this period were often very well-connected, you don’t just find correspondence with other scientists, but also politicians, artists, businessmen, collectors, and the general public (often as fan-mail or requests for information).

Expedition Records: Particularly in the early-twentieth century, many museums sent out their own research expeditions, especially to colonies. Documents relating to these, including plans, reports, photographs and letters from the field, are frequently held in museum archives, and show a great deal of interesting information about the conduct of scientific work and the dynamics of colonialism.

Photographs and Artworks: Photograph and illustration collections can be very extensive, showing historic exhibits, specimens, old building layouts and portraits of eminent figures. You also find caricatures, Christmas cards, and I even came across one photo album from a museum director documenting all the fancy-dress costumes he and his wife wore between 1910-1940.

Popularizing Documents: Records of lectures, popular magazines, even radio and television scripts can be found in many collections, letting you see how scientific ideas were communicated to the public. Press clippings were also frequently collected by museums, and are both a great pre-made selection of newspaper stories and also give a good insight into the mind of the “clipper.”

Ephemera: Museum archives are also great for unexpected ephemera, and I have found things like lecture programmes and tickets, exhibition guides, personal identity cards, sales catalogues of anthropometric instruments and fossils, and a lot of palaeontologically themed menus. I have found it very very easy to get sidetracked with these!

Collections in France

The French leg of research has mostly focussed on Paris and collections relating to the Muséum d’histoire naturelle, although I’m also aiming to do some research in Lyon and Toulouse. These also quite neatly sum up some of the different types of archives I’ve visited:

Bibliothèque Centrale du Muséum national d’histoire naturelle: This is the main archive and manuscript repository of France’s national natural history museum. Rather than work in one of the old buildings in the Jardin des Plantes, the library is in a comfortable, spacious modern research centre on the western end of the complex, where you go to work in the Salle de réserve (cordoned off from the main research library). The documents here are mostly photographs, personal papers of scientists associated with the museum and expedition records. They are documented in a comprehensive online catalogue at http://www.calames.abes.fr/pub/#details?id=FileId-433

Research here can be a bit time-consuming, as the Salle de réserve is only open between 14:00-18:00 and a maximum of 4 manuscript boxes can be ordered at a time, and some collections are really extensive: the prehistorian Henri Breuil’s beautiful reproductions of Palaeolithic cave-art and correspondence in rather less beautiful handwriting run to 114 boxes. However, it’s a really nice place to work and the staff are great, so I never mind at all needing to go back.

Archives nationales: French National Museums reported directly to the state, and so most of their administrative files are not in the museum archives themselves, but in division F17 (Ministère de l’Instruction publique) and AJ15 of the Archives Nationales. So this requires several trips up to Pierrefitte to spend time among the roosters (see https://frenchhistorysociety.co.uk/blog/?p=110 ). As well as having the annual reports and council minutes for the museum, there are several files on French scientific expeditions, and many more idiosyncratic files. While nothing to do with my research, I have enjoyed reading about all the animals gifted by various foreign dignitaries to the museum menagerie and reports from guards in the galleries trying to stop Parisian youths from throwing stones at the whale skeletons suspended from the ceiling.

Institut de paléontologie humaine: The IPH is a research institute established in 1913 devoted to the study of human prehistory and Ice Age palaeontology, which shared many staff with the Museum and conducted several research projects alongside it. Access and work here requires getting in touch with the archivist and institute historian, who is incredibly helpful, and also happens to be one of the leading historians of French prehistory. The records are very extensive, particularly relating to excavations and expeditions both in France and overseas (including to South America, Algeria, China and Italy), a great deal of correspondence, and lectures and research notes of people associated with the Institut and the Museum. The building itself is amazing, with the architecture and decoration being worth a study in itself, and the library is also the only place I’m aware of where you work in the company of a fossil woolly rhinoceros.

Thank you Chris for such a rich description of your archival research!


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