Monthly Archives: April 2016

Off off-campus

IBR

Sometimes I feel like it should say “abandon all hope ye who enter here”. But there’s an awesome dog park to the left of this sign.

My office is off campus. Like, really  off campus. We jokingly call it Harvard West. Our building is in Somerville at the very end of Inner Belt Road, which I just learned has its own Wikipedia page.  We share a floor with the contractors responsible for the Green Line extension of the MBTA, and upstairs is a waste management company. And there we are, the off-site storage and offices for some of the departments of the Harvard Art Museums.

During the Art Museums’ major renovations, completed in fall of 2014, the entire staff worked at 200 IBR. As construction progressed, it became clear that not everyone could move back to 32 Quincy Street, across from Harvard Yard, because the new museum has even less office space than the old one. Museum Archives, Communications, a good portion of Collections Management, and we, the Sardis Expedition, did not return to Cambridge. Don’t get me wrong..I love the new Renzo Piano building, and the galleries are gorgeous. But I have to admit it is very difficult for those of us in IBR to feel like a real part of the museum.

Our building is at the very end of a long road through an industrial park, a solid 15 minute walk from the closest bus stop, with questionable sidewalks, a fairly sketchy tunnel underneath the commuter rail, and lots of large truck traffic. There is an hourly shuttle run by the museum for staff and visiting researchers that goes door to door, but if you miss one, you’ve got a full hour before the next. It’s hard to get student workers willing to come all the way out to us. They can’t work between classes…it just takes too long to go back and forth.

But for Sardis, an archaeological expedition that, historically, has been included with the Fogg Museum, is in an odd place. We’re really our own thing. We don’t have objects in the galleries, we rarely have academic programming at the museum, other than a biannual lecture by our director. In all honesty, most museum employees, especially new hires, have no idea we exist. We actually spend more time interacting with the Classics and History of Art departments. It is our office location, however, which presents a huge obstacle for us to raise our profile at the University. And I’m not sure how to fix it, other than moving back to campus. Networking is incredibly difficult, spontaneous run-ins with professors, students, or visitors cannot happen.

At the same time, we “outcasts” at IBR try to make the best of it. Normally we at Sardis wouldn’t have any reason to interact with Museum Archives, but now that our offices are next door we have ample opportunity to chat about the issues we face as archives. Likewise, having Communications next door has led to us learning more about branding and social media, something we need to seriously consider boosting if we’re going to raise our profile as a working excavation and data center.

Plus there are the silly moments like yesterday afternoon, where most of the IBR Museum staff gathered at the windows to watch the billowing brown clouds of smoke from a massive fire at a junk yard across Rte 128. I looked at my colleague in Archives and we both said at the same time, “Only in IBR.”

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Behind the Scenes

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Sardis Archival storage, with nearly 60 years of handwritten logs and reports

Nothing makes me nerd out harder than being in the storage spaces or archives of museums. I remember reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler about the two kids secretly living at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and being downright giddy at the idea of wandering through galleries when no one else is around. Even before reading this, the Sesame Street special “Don’t Eat the Pictures” was my favorite movie as a child. Again, the entire Sesame Street gang gets locked in the Met overnight and explores the galleries on their own.

It’s the same thing with museum storage…the idea of seeing things that others don’t normally get to see, looking at objects and documents that normally do not see the light of day. I suppose it’s the same rush I get from archaeological work…bringing something to light that’s been untouched for hundreds or thousands of years.

Today is the end of #MuseumWeek on Twitter and other social media platforms, and it’s my favorite. I love posting my own Sardis content (@Snarrkaeology), but I also love pouring over what other institutions post…ESPECIALLY the #secretsMW hashtag. The behind-the-scenes looks, most notably those posted by a number of Italian museums, were simply fascinating to me. And it reminds me how fortunate I’ve been in my own career and research.

As emotionally, physically, and intellectually exhausting as the dissertation process can be, some of my happiest moments from the last…however many years it took me to finish that thing…occurred during the process. My work required collections visits to institutions throughout the US and Europe, and at the end of the day…everyone was unbelievably welcoming and helpful, willing to drop what they were doing to get me what I needed. My best moments:

  1. Having a gallery closed off for me in the Vatican so that they could open the cases for my examination of the cremation urns there, joking with the three guards assigned to me, and drinking espressos with them right in the gallery.
  2. The Museo A. Salinas in Palermo letting me come in their building, during heavy construction, to examine object cards…while the entire staff was cramped into one room to do their own work.
  3. Coming to the Louvre on a Tuesday when they were closed to the public, having the cases opened for me, chatting with the head curator of Greek and Roman like he was a peer, and being left alone in storage for AN HOUR. I lost my mind.
  4. Days and days at the historic archives of the Florence archaeological superintendency hunched over hand-drawn plans and excavation reports from the 19th and 20th centuries, then spending break time with the staff drinking coffee and talking about our cats.
  5. Having the chance to examine urns at the Altes Museum in Berlin in storage, the galleries before opening, and in the brand new study center.
  6. Being locked in the Etruscan galleries of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek all by myself to examine the urns there…and to spend a good amount of time wandering around.

The list could go on, but I’ve been lucky to fulfill all my nerdy dreams.

And I want to pay it forward.

Archaeological archives are fascinating. We have so many wonderful documents here at the Sardis Archives at the Harvard Art Museums. If you’re interested, need something for your research, or just want to see something new, please let me know. Our doors are open if you need to nerd out.