Society of American Archivists’ 2014 Annual Meeting

Hawai'i and former Hawai'i archivists outside the Library of Congress: Dainan Skeem, Archives and Manuscripts Department, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa; Ashley Hartwell, Curator of the Armor Collection at the National Infantry Museum; me; Gina Vergara-Bautista, Archivist, Hawai'i State Archives.
Hawai’i and former Hawai’i archivists outside the Library of Congress: Dainan Skeem, Archives and Manuscripts Department, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa; Ashley Hartwell, Curator of the Armor Collection at the National Infantry Museum; me; Gina Vergara-Bautista, Archivist, Hawai’i State Archives.

Earlier this month, I was very fortunate to have attended the Society of American Archivists’ annual meeting in Washington, DC. The sessions were great, the weather was atypically pleasant, and it “just happened” to be restaurant week (thanks, SAA organizers!)—all in all, a memorable combination.

Before the conference even began, I attended an Electronic Records and Museum Archives Symposium hosted by SAA’s Museum Archives Sections’ Standards and Best Practices Working Group, of which I am a member. Like archivists in other types of institutions, museum archivists are receiving more and more born-digital material—often times on obsolete media (remember zip disks?) and/or in obsolete formats (Kodak photo CD files—ugh!). Much of this material documents important museum functions, and, as such, merits long-term preservation. But once we figure out how to read the files, how do we provide access to them and ensure that they are not altered?

At the symposium, archivists from a variety of museums shared what they were doing to manage their born-digital records. Strategies ranged from implementing commercial digital repository systems to using in-house expertise to customize open-source implementations to outsourcing to using a variety of free utilities to begin managing e-records. Like these other institutions, Shangri La is also dealing with the challenges of born-digital materials, so it was especially helpful to see the wide range of tools and strategies available to us.

During the conference itself, I attended sessions relating to web archiving, records management, and born digital records. I was especially interested in the web archiving sessions because Shangri La has recently expanded its social media presence, and we want to find ways of preserving and providing access to these records, which document our outreach efforts and what is essentially our “public face.”

Though SAA is a national organization, some sessions addressed issues that were international in scope. Members of the collective Librarians and Archivists with Palestine, for example, reported on their 2013 trip to meet with Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel, and on their formation of a network of information professionals committed to speaking out against the destruction of Palestinian libraries, archives, and other cultural property.

All in all, I learned a ton and left feeling energized by the great work my colleagues are doing. (And the goat cheese cheesecake with blueberry sauce wasn’t too shabby either!)

Volunteer Profile: Christian Galiza

Volunteer Christian Galiza in Essaouira, Morocco, Summer 2012.
Shangri La volunteer Christian Galiza in Essaouira, Morocco, Summer 2012.

In this blog entry, we are pleased to introduce Christian Galiza, our stellar summer volunteer, who will be a senior at Campbell High School this fall. At Campbell, Christian studies Arabic language through the OneWorld Now! program. He and his classmates have visited Shangri La several times, and last summer they travelled to Morocco to study Arabic for three weeks.

While volunteering with us, Christian rehoused collections photographs, scanned archival materials, transcribed guide questions, and even did some work with calligraphic cartouches. We can’t thank him enough for his excellent work and pleasant (and funny!) company. Before he left for China (on another study trip with OneWorld Now!), Christian took a moment to tell us a little about his studies and his trip to Morocco last year:

Some of the subjects many of my friends study include Spanish, French, and Japanese. There are more people in the world who speak Arabic than Japanese and French combined. So where is Arabic in the curriculum? Most high schools almost never offer Arabic language in their language departments. In fact, less than 1% of high school students in the United States study Arabic language. One of the ideas behind the OneWorld Now! program is to break down the barriers between Americans and the world by creating leaders that will learn foreign languages and then apply their leadership skills while traveling abroad. I think that if we do this, then the world would stop abiding by their stereotypes and unite with one another.

Although the desire for studying Arabic hadn’t even passed my mind when I came to high school, my attention to this language and leadership program helps me want to take a more unique approach to my high school career. I think of Arabic as a very interesting and enjoyable language to learn. Arabic dialects are different in each Arabic-speaking country, so the language is paired with a culture that is unique in its own way, honoring traditions that date back thousands of years.

Although it was just three weeks, my trip to Morocco was definitely a life changing experience. The main purpose of my trip was to study Moroccan Arabic. Although most days we studied in the classroom for three hours, we would be cut loose after the scheduled activities. We had to find ways to get to school, and do our own shopping without much supervision. To make it an even more authentic experience, we lived alongside host families so we could see the day in the life of a Moroccan.

Two other high school students from Seattle were living with me, along with eight host family members: parents, two twin sisters, another sister, and three brothers in one huge home. I got along with them extremely well and felt that I lucked out from the rest of my group, many of whom stayed in smaller, compact, old flats just above the noise of the markets in an area in the medina that never sleeps. In my family, the sisters had iPhones. Despite our language barriers, we bonded through sharing pictures and playing wireless multiplayer games from the App Store. These bonding times happened at around midnight, after dinner which was usually served at around 11:15 pm. Moroccans refuse to let people go on anything less than a full stomach, and go hours and hours exchanging stories through gestures and laughing at each other.

Some of my favorite traditions were couscous Fridays, during which a large dish was served with couscous, loads of vegetables, and some chicken or lamb. These were called tagines. These dishes can be expensive and time-consuming to prepare, but are specially made and served to guests regardless of how little or how much they made that week. Hot mint tea with 60% sugar was served daily, many servings coming from people whom I didn’t know at all and were excited to meet a foreigner.

Morocco’s capital city, Rabat, was bustling with the noises and smells of the medina and the sounds of rush hour in the downtown area just outside of my school. During specific times during the days and nights, extremely loud speakers would announce the prayer call from the mosques on every block. Despite the seemingly inconvenient times, all business would suddenly freeze. People would pull out their rugs in direction of Mecca or rush to the mosque and start praying. This routine got extremely strict during Ramadan, when everyone was fasting.

Morocco is a very modern place that refuses to let go of its original roots. It’s been very Westernised by the Europeans. French is an official business language and so it is spoken all the time. McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken sit alongside a Chinese restaurant whose owners are Moroccan. These restaurants sit next door to older parts of the city. There is a mix of people who have a great sense of Western popular fashion, but some dress conservatively. And everybody seemed totally fine with that.

A Few of Our Favorite Things: Logbook

If anyone were curious about what the thermostatic mixing valve in the Playhouse is made of, who the Mughal Garden fountain spigots were purchased from, or what kind of wood Moroccan artisans used for the living room and foyer ceilings, chances are, we’ve got the answers (white metal-plated copper alloy, Novelty Foundry, and painted cedar, respectively). The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art is extremely fortunate to have such detailed information about the house and its collections—and we have the Shangri La managers and recordkeepers, from 1936 onward, to thank.

As an archivist, I’m very interested in recordkeeping. In fact, it’s my job to ensure that researchers can not only find information contained in records, but that they can also understand how and why those records were originally created and maintained.

Logbook, 1939–1944. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.

It should come as no surprise, then, that my favorite thing at Shangri La is an item from the archives. It’s a logbook kept from 1939 to 1944, and it records items received by and sent from Shangri La. The arrival of important collections items—the Syrian mother-of-pearl chests Doris Duke (1912–93) purchased from Asfar & Sarkis (65.46), the Persian tomb cover purchased from Hagop Kevorkian in 1940 (48.348), and the Spanish luster plates purchased from the William Randolph Hearst sales (e.g., 48.114)—are recorded here, along with the arrival of more utilitarian items like books, shoes, and three rubber raincoats for use on Doris Duke’s yacht. The departure of important objects, like the Guanyin statue shipped from Shangri La to Duke Farms in January 1941 to make room for the newly acquired Veramin mihrab (48.327), is recorded here as well.

Logbooks like this one (records such as these were kept intermittently through the 1980s) help us to understand an object’s provenance and acquisition. Historical photographs, dealer invoices and correspondence, and shipping and insurance receipts all offer partial information about how and when objects were purchased. The logbooks, because they confirm the receipt of objects and usually indicate the date and dealer or country of origin, are very important pieces of this puzzle.

The logbook records the receipt of three mother-of-pearl chests from Syria on June 22, 1940. Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.

What’s more, this particular logbook functions as a chronicle of the collection during a very important period of its development—the period following Doris Duke’s 1938 trip to the Middle East. Just about every two weeks, shipments of objects, textiles and furniture from dealers and galleries were received at Shangri La. Collections objects were almost as often leaving Shangri La, to be shipped to one of Doris Duke’s other properties, or to be sent out for repair, fumigation or other conservation treatment.

Since records of Doris Duke articulating her collecting objectives and vision are relatively scarce, we rely on evidence like this to figure out what she may have been thinking. For example, we can trace in archival and curatorial records how Duke’s needs and tastes as a collector changed over time—how she began by collecting practical objects that could be used at Shangri La, then became more discerning, developing concerted interests in Ilkhanid Persian tilework, Qajar Persian art, and late Ottoman Syrian interiors and furnishings, among other subjects.

Keeping good records is also a part of our responsibility as stewards of these objects—indeed, documenting collections is part of the American Association of Museums’ code of ethics. In short, the more information we can gather about the DDFIA collection, the better we can understand and care for them!

 NOTE: This logbook will likely be displayed in the next exhibit case installation in Shangri La’s Damascus Room, the one area onsite where visitors can view such important archival items.

Installing the Damascus Room

The turmoil in Syria has been much in the news lately. With the opening of our Damascus Room, we hope to make visitors aware of this nation’s rich cultural heritage by letting them experience the world of 18th- and 19th-century Damascus.

View of the newly opened Damascus Room from the southeast corner. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2012.)

During the later years of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), when this room’s paneling was originally created, Damascus was a bustling and cosmopolitan trading center. Well-to-do residents entertained their guests in reception rooms generally known by the Arabic word qa‘a (hall) that featured elaborate ‘ajami woodwork (in which a raised surface of animal glue and gypsum was painted and then further embellished with metal leaf and/or mirrors) and luxury trade items such as textiles, glassware, ceramics and metalwork.

Georges Asfar in the retrofitted Damascus Room prior to its shipment to Honolulu. (Shangri La Historical Archives, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i.)

Shangri La’s Damascene interior was acquired from the Damascus- and Beirut-based firm Asfar & Sarkis (with whom Duke had been working since the 1930s) in 1953. The interior was then retrofitted by the al-Khayyat workshop of Damascus so that it would fit in the former “Spanish Room” at Shangri La. Doris Duke began installing the room in 1955, and it continued to serve as a guest room for nearly 40 years.

Over time, the temperature and ocean breezes, which make Shangri La such a pleasant place to visit, take their toll on buildings and objects. Thanks to the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC), the Damascus Room has undergone extensive conservation work, which identified and addressed areas of loss and damage. Now that treatment of the room is complete, we’ve decided to make it a part of our regular public tours. In fact, we’re proud to be one of only a handful of institutions that exhibit—and allow visitors to walk into—Syrian interiors of this type.

Conservator Kent Severson installs a pane of protective glass in the objects vitrine. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

In planning and installing this exhibit, one of the biggest challenges we faced was working with the historic vitrines. How were we going to install shelving without drilling holes through the original wood? And how were we going to protect the delicate objects on display in the east vitrine? Luckily our team came up with some innovative solutions: We used velvet-covered boards to support both ends of the glass shelves, and we slid multiple panels of glass (rather than a single large panel) into the object vitrine.

Curator Keelan Overton and I arrange original documents and photographs inside the archival exhibit case. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

Improvisation was indeed the name of the game. Conservator Kent Severson and consulting textile conservator Ann Svenson devised a method of hanging textiles inside the vitrines. They also suspended our photos and interpretive labels from the glass shelves using dabs of silicone and monofilament thread (dental floss was even considered, albeit briefly).

We all did our best to work with the room’s changing light, and its variable temperature and airflow. We hope that the resulting exhibit, which features archival displays (facsimiles and originals), as well as a range of textiles and objects that reflect both Doris Duke’s collecting interests and the domestic practices of late-Ottoman Damascus, will give you a taste of this elegant and fascinating world.

75th Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists

As Shangri La’s contract archivist, I flew to Chicago for the Society of American Archivists’ 75th annual meeting. It was a week of nonstop panels, meetings, networking, and workshops—with just enough time left over for hotdogs and cheesecake on a stick!

One thing we’ve been working on here at Shangri La is conceptualizing our institutional archives—an urgent need, especially considering all the documentation we generate every day about events, exhibitions, capital projects, conservation, and scholars and artists in residence. To that end, I gathered as much information as I could about preserving and providing access to “born-digital” materials such as email messages, PDFs, and digital video and image files. I was fortunate to attend April Norris’s one-day workshop, “Preserving Digital Archives: Concepts and Competencies,” which introduced participants to the model of an Open Archival Information System, and to some of the technical, policy, and theoretical issues related to digital archives.

As Shangri La enters the world of social media via our blog, facebook, and vimeo sites, we also need to consider how to capture, preserve, and provide access to this content—not just the content generated by us, but also the content generated by you, our users. Luckily, there were a number of sessions on rights analysis and social media archiving that offered advice on that very topic. Of course, trends, technology, and user agreements change constantly and quickly. This is both maddening and exciting, and it requires archivists to become that much more nimble.

Finally, I was excited to attend the meetings of the Museum Archives Section and Working Group. It was such a great opportunity to talk shop (and eavesdrop on others talking shop!) about issues specific to museum archives, such as accession files and curatorial files.

It was great to spend a week with colleagues, and I returned from Chicago feeling invigorated. We have a lot of work ahead of us here in the Shangri La/DDFIA archives, and I’m excited to be a part of it!