Archival Field Fellowship: Museum of African American History

The Archival Field Fellowship is a pilot program from the Roving Archivist Program debuted in October 2019.  This new offering increases hands-on assistance to Massachusetts repositories and provides emerging archivists with professional experience and mentorship. In 2019-2020, six institutions representing a diverse cross-section of archival repositories are hosting field fellows. As the fellowships are completed, field fellows share reflections and insights about their site experience on the MA SHRAB blog.  This program is funded through support from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. This is the first post in a six part series.

Author: Deanna Parsi

For my SHRAB Field Fellowship project, I was assigned to the Museum of African American History (MAAH).  The Museum’s archives are located at Fortress, which, disappointingly for this gothic novel reader, does not remotely resemble the soaring castle battlement the name suggests.  However, the Museum’s archives have been newly reorganized, supplies had been ordered, and all was ready for this novice archivist to do her thing.

Project Launch Meeting!  From left to right: Katie Brown (MCR), Cara Liasson (MAAH), Alejandra Dean (SHRAB), Deanna Parsi (SHRAB Field Fellow), Sarah-Jane Poindexter (MA Roving Archivist), and Chandra Harrington (MAAH).

The collection I worked on became the “Nantucket: Rock of Changes” Documentary Records, 1901-2003 (bulk 1993-1999).  Nantucket: Rock of Changes (NROC) was a television documentary, created in a partnership between MAAH and WGBH in Boston. Produced by Harlan Reiniger, the original film was entitled Rock of Changes: Race, Faith and Freedom on Nantucket, and was broadcast on Massachusetts public television in 1998. A slightly revised version aired in other markets in 2000-2001 under the title Nantucket: Rock of Changes.

The film tells the story of the 19th century African American whaling community on Nantucket and its role in bringing about the nation’s first equal education law in 1845. It features two sites owned by MAAH. The African Meeting House on Nantucket, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, served Nantucket’s African American community as a school, a church, a meeting house, and a community gathering place. The Boston-Higginbotham House was the home of Absalom Boston, an African American mariner, who played a critical role in the integration of Nantucket’s schools. The Museum helped produce the film, in part, to increase awareness of the African Meeting House on Nantucket and to help raise funds for the restoration of the building and the development of a permanent exhibit on the site.

Archivist at work!  SHRAB Field Fellow Deanna Parsi attempting to construct a multimedia box.

The NROC records include a wide range of documents and 126 pieces of outdated multimedia.  For me, one of the most interesting parts of the collection is the twenty-six interviews that were conducted for the film. Among the interviewees are historians, Nantucket residents, local volunteers, and Museum employees. Topics discussed relate to Nantucket and include the anti-slavery movement, Frederick Douglass, the African American community, the African Meeting House, school integration, the 19th century whaling industry, and general Nantucket and Massachusetts history.

I only know these interviews are interesting, however, because transcripts were created. The media used for the interviews themselves (Betacam and DVCam tapes) is obsolete and MAAH does not have the equipment to view them.  In fact, MAAH does not even have a digitized version of the film, just a VHS copy. This situation is not unusual and illustrates the challenge that many small repositories with multimedia in their collections face – how to preserve that content over time.

As I mentioned, the interview transcripts are in the collection, so the content can be preserved, even if not in its original form. I was also able to match the transcripts to their corresponding tapes and release forms.  As for the interviews themselves, though, there are preservation threats to consider if the Museum wants to provide access to the content as it was created, such as physical degradation of the media, format obsolescence, and aging (and increasingly unavailable) technology.

What will MAAH do?  As with all small repositories, it will come down to resources.  The first step was understanding the content contained in this collection. From there, they can prioritize based on a few key questions. What content is of long-term value to the Museum? What content matches their collection policy? What content might be of interest to prospective users?  After a selection is made, they will decide how best to migrate the content to a current medium, how to fund the project, and then make plans for maintenance over time. In order to preserve the voices of the past, it is important for archives and museums to be aware of the digital preservation tools available and use them to maximize the chances that our digital objects will outlast us.

SHRAB Field Fellow Deanna Parsi numbering folders.

I sincerely enjoyed my time working on this project – I added to my archival experience, helped MAAH enable access to one of their collections, and learned something about Massachusetts history in the process. I hope to one day watch a digitized version of Nantucket: Rock of Changes.  Many thanks to the good folks at the Museum of African American History and to the Massachusetts State Historical Records Advisory Board for this Field Fellowship opportunity!

Project complete!  “Nantucket: Rock of Changes” Documentary Records, 1901-2003 (bulk 1993-1999).

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