Posted: February 6, 2023
The Museums department is excited to begin transferring collection records to a new management system in the coming weeks. This new program, CatalogIt, is currently in use by other cultural heritage institutions in the Charleston area, and we are excited to make our collections even more accessible than they were before. Instead of being tied to a physical computer terminal, the collections database will be accessible to the Archivist and museums staff wherever they have an internet connection. We will be able to update records with pictures, descriptive data, digitized paper records and provenance, AND update the online catalog instantaneously. It will take some time to clean the data once the migration is complete, but watch the research page on the website for exciting new additions to our already-amazing content. It will be worth the wait!
Why is it important for an archival collection, like ours, to be accessible? The reasons are endless, but too sum it up – it comes down to justice. For millennia, records have been kept primarily about property and profit, by and for those who had both. Archival collections have tended to perpetuate that but now we are seeing a shift in the profession to new practices including reparative collecting and description, a feminist ethic of care, sensitivity to closed cultural practices, and more. Archives have also, traditionally, been seen as elitist institutions, and that makes sense because of the records they held and whose lives they portrayed. Archives have not always shared the whole story or presented all the pieces of evidence of a culture, because the stories and testimonies and practices of some people were not deemed worthy of record. Some communities did not utilize the written word so their records were primarily oral or cultural practice and similarly discounted. To adequately represent all people, archives need to consider all the ways we can collect and disseminate records. Because of the nascent issues of repatriation and sensitivity to other cultural practices, memory institutions (like museums, libraries, and archives) are wrestling with the question about how much accessibility should be allowed. This is an ongoing discussion and it is being taken seriously by archivists. Yes, we want information to be freely accessible to all, but not at the expense of privacy, cultural protection, donor restrictions, and law. Archivists approach the entirety of their work cautiously, always with our code of ethics in mind. It is because of this code of ethics that our Archivist, Sarah Ferguson, is serious about collecting fairly. Historic Charleston Foundation is committed to keeping our collection accessible, and to growing it so that we can show an accurate picture of Charleston’s culture and built environment.
Like any other archival collection, the Margaretta Childs Archives has a backlog of materials that have not yet been processed and made available to the public. There are boxes of photographs that have not been identified, and boxes of files that have not been arranged (this would need to be done before they could be accessioned, cataloged, digitized, and shared). HCF is incredibly lucky to have not just photographs but institutional records, maps, museum collection objects, library books, rare books, plats, slides, videos; thousands of objects that are not yet as usable as they could be. The Foundation has a mountain of material and a solo arranger (aka Sarah, our incredible Archivist), so it takes a lot of work to make even one record available online. One of the most exciting aspects of this program is it will be more user-friendly and will allow faster processing – thus MORE of our collection will be accessible and available to the public.
While a large part of the archival collection (paper, photographs, etc) is online, a large part of our collection that is not as readily accessible is the museum collection. This collection is comprised of items at our two historic house museums The new system will allow us to remedy this gap in our online catalogue to benefit the general public as well as other cultural heritage institutions, students, and researchers. With a more accessible collection, the pieces could open up opportunities for loans, conservation work, and studies that have not arisen before since our collection was known to those “in-the-know”. It’s also been pointed out in the museum literature post-Covid closures, that museums who had their collections online had higher levels of engagement and visitor satisfaction when they could finally visit in person again. An online collection is a way to let visitors and guests learn about what the Foundation and historic houses have to offer before they come, to build excitement, and to share our treasures with the wider world. While this process is incredibly exciting, it will take some time. Please be patient with us!
This shift will also allow our collection to be more inclusive than ever. Why is it important for a collection like ours to be inclusive in 2023? Sarah Ferguson explains, “as I research for myself and for others in our collection, I [will be able to] find more tags or search terms that more accurately reflect today’s Charleston and apply that knowledge to our database. As I said before, [the community is] talking more about reparative collection and description practices. One thing, though, is I can’t do it alone. Our collection is very much a portrait of its past in that it is overwhelmingly privileged people’s architectural records and the foundation’s own institutional heritage. To grow a collection that reflects Charleston’s current character, I need folks to be willing to share their stories, memories, photos, and documents with us. In addition to HCF’s collection expanding, I would love to see satellite community archives in the neighborhoods around town so that people can be stewards of their own history.”
Stay connected with us to learn more about this change and to explore the new system when it is live. Are you interested in learning more about the Margaretta Childs Collection with Sarah Ferguson? Feel free to reach out and make an appointment, or browse the collection that is already available online. As Sarah reiterates, “If anyone has questions about starting one or would like to chat about donating materials or sitting for an oral history, I’d be happy talk to you about that!”