Shades Of The Departed

August 15

A Monthly - Weekend With Shades - Column

As last month’s Saving Face discussed, provenance matters. Knowing where something came from and whose hands it passed through before it arrived in your archives can tell you a lot about its creator, its custodians and about the object itself. Earlier this week on her Photo Detective blog, Maureen Taylor outlined exactly how provenance can help in researching photographs and provides an excellent example of why it matters, in case you would like a little refresher.

Provenance does not just matter because of the issues I wrote about last time. When it comes to the world of archives, provenance can also help dictate the organization and physical arrangement of a collection, something that has great implications for family archives. In a collection of things, each item has a relationship to those items around it, and to the overall collection as a whole. The fact that an individual gathered together a bunch of items and passed them down as a group says something about that individual and those items. And so, preserving the collection’s integrity as a sum of gathered parts is important. Put another way, by breaking up a collection of items with the same origin, you are in effect destroying part of the context that comes with them and therefore diminishing their meaning and significance. An example might be a box of letters kept by my grandmother. They aren’t arranged in any particular order – just a jumble of letters in a box – but the fact that they are grouped together and had their source in my grandmother’s closet is significant. To physically separate them into new folders and boxes and to include no indication of their origins as a jumble of papers grouped together by my grandmother would be to destroy their context as a collection she created that all came in one box, together.

Taking this notion of preserving the integrity of collections even further is the archival principle of original order. Original order dictates not just that things that come together stay together, but that they ought to be kept together in the arrangement imposed by their original collector or creator (when such an intentional order exists). Doing this is a way to preserve the originator’s thought process and the relationships of collection items in relation to one another. A good example of the logic behind this are photographs like the one in Maureen’s article: If knowing the names of the photograph’s previous owners is good, then preserving the way it was housed in an album and its relation to all the other photographs in that album would be even better. Similarly, if you were a scholar studying the life and work of, say, Albert Einstein, wouldn’t you want to know how he arranged his files himself? Being able to look through his papers in the order in which he arranged them himself could tell you a lot more about him than seeing his papers arranged decades later by an archivist.

Original order makes life pretty easy, because, well, you don’t really have to do much. Of course, not all of us are lucky enough to inherit collections that have an original order. My family collections have all come to me as messes of things floating around in old boxes from now-defunct department stores without any discernible order at all. But at least I can record that those messes of things arrived at my door together from somewhere and someone else, and that still has value – beyond supplying evidence about the disorganization of my forefathers and mothers.

Copyright © Rebecca Fenning