On Standing at the Archives Gate, or a Literal Glimpse into the Penn Museum Archives



I was wandering around the Penn Museum last weekend and stumbled into this sign while mesmerized by an amazing touchscreen installation in the Native American Voices exhibition.


I love it when archival collections are put on display. Some kinds of wealth should be flaunted, and I would like to see the breadth and depth of Penn’s colorful riches. Also, the title “Unearthed in the Archives” is brilliant. I love outreach programs. Anything to expand collection awareness and enhance the public’s view of the archives field. As a visitor, I appreciate the archivist’s welcoming gesture and the “Drop in — don’t be shy!” line. Many non-information professionals I’ve met never heard of an archive, or think it’s a library or (my personal favorite) some imposing pseudo-crypt at the end of a long, dark, empty passage.


That’s quite a long… empty … passage. I seem to have missed the art exhibit. That would explain the slightly askew “NEW EXHIBIT COMING SOON” label that I initially thought was advertising the “Art in the Archives” exhibit (as in “Hey! Look at what’s coming soon! An exhibit on art! Wahoo!!”), not noting the imminent arrival of a new one. Give me a moment to collect myself.


Yes, the old girl was showing her age a bit, but this was a nice bathroom.


It had the prettiest view I’ve ever seen from a potty.


Back in the long, empty hallway to All That Is Stereotypical and Mysterious, we can see where Penn archivists make their copies, heat their lunches, gossip about the hotties in Legal, and plan their SAA bar crawl. Maybe. Not really. No, they don’t.


The bar crawls aren’t really planned this far in advance.



The door to the archives. My old boss was once sarcastically referred to as “The Gate Keeper,” but we just had standard office doors.


The Penn Museum archivists are literally gatekeepers. There’s an actual gate. And it’s a bit imposing. Pretty, but imposing.

A lot of archives are visited by appointment only which leads to the air of mystery these spaces have. One visitor to Well-Known Non-Profit’s archives told me that he expected it to be “scary” because of the ones he’d seen on tv (to this day I have no clue what shows he’d been watching). Is it because archives are often stuck in the basement? Maybe he just played a lot of Fallout 3.

National Archives: Fallout 3 edition

A former colleague once had to console a visitor because our office wasn’t the vaunted, sacred cathedral o’ old stuff he’d envisioned; another was pissed off that the archives staff were carrying on with complete lack of reverence for the history surrounding us. As if we were supposed to be monks illuminating transcripts in complete silence. No. Archives aren’t those types of places.

Standing at the gate and looking in, I can see how (from a lay perspective) an archive in a room like this can be intimidating: black wrought iron stairs leading to balconies laden with boxes; boxes upon boxes on the floor, piles here and there; a portrait of some figure radiating authority and intellect looking down from his place high on the wall. Those doors — where do they go? What’s in those boxes? Is that staircase as dizzying as it looks? It’s all kind of off-putting. It shouldn’t be, because it really isn’t.




Just think of it as someone’s office, a nice, hyper-organized office with stuff laying around. And a really nice rug to snazz up the place with a bunch of inherited furniture from other offices. Not as intimidating anymore, is it?

I couldn’t imagine myself working here, though. I’d feel too exposed to the people taking glimpses from the other side of the gate.


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