As many of you will know I am interested in museum archives – how they are managed, stored, and documented in their own right, and how they are connected to other items and collections.
I’m also interested in archives and documents on display in museums. When managed by separate systems and processes (which seems to be the norm), it is often only when brought together with other things in display cases that archival connections and context become visible. I’ve been keeping an eye out for examples on my U.S. trip.
In my experience, documentary material is most often found in museums or displays focusing on social, cultural, political and biographical histories, which holds true here in America as much as it does in Australia. Writing of the latter, Tom Griffiths has suggested that “the first professional historians were archivists, nineteenth-century managers of the document”, and the continued prominence of the written document as a source displayed alongside non-textual objects is a feature of historical displays in many institutions.
Later, Griffiths states:
Professional history was founded on the distinction between oral and literate cultures, and between memory and history. Memory is fluid and personal, whereas history is a collective and public activity that requires verifiable sources and institutions for its transmission. 
The beautiful National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. explicitly addresses this divide.
While oral traditions may be seen as a contributing factor to the lack of documentary material in anthropological and ethnographic displays, Griffiths argues that it is also due to anthropology’s pursuit of scientific credibility, seeking the synchronic rather than the historical and focusing on the artefact rather than the text.
In keeping with this view of science, archives and documentary records often all but disappear in natural history museums and exhibitions (specimen tags aside), with two exceptions.
The first is not surprising. Sometimes a visitor will encounter displays which, though related to natural history, are more about individuals or events. The American Museum of Natural History’s display about Lincoln Ellsworth and the first flights across the Arctic and the Antarctic is an example. Suddenly in the midst of a museum almost devoid of visible archives we have a display with a historical focus, and with that focus comes log books, diaries, maps and other documentary material.
The second area is perhaps more surprising: paleontology.
It’ s something I discovered at three different museums on this trip, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles (NHMLA), the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum, also in L.A., and the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C.
Taking them in reverse order, though the main dinosaur halls at NMNH are closed for refurbishment they have some impressive material on temporary display elsewhere in the museum. Included is a visible fossil lab with staff working on items brought in from digs, a video where the notebook is described as one of the key tools of the palaeontologist, and an actual field notebook on display alongside other equipment.
La Brea also includes a visible fossil lab and a section devoted to process.
Two wall cases start with the dig and documentation in the field and go through to cataloguing, research and a final publication, all illustrated with photographs and examples. These are between the open lab and a window looking in on a section of visible ‘back of house’ storage.
The second case includes the following text:
Even more important than the fossil itself is the information about where it was collected, because without that information, there is no way to fit the specimen into the ever expanding knowledge of ancient life on Earth. Paleontologists are constantly saddened by the well-meaning but uninformed amateurs who bring in fossils of rare or unknown animals without accurate locality information. Museums carefully record and save all of the known information about every fossil in their collections with either a written or a computerized catalogue system.
Leaving aside the slightly disdainful tone, the difference between an amateur and a professional, according to La Brea, is not in the specimens, it’s in the documentation.
The place that started this journey was the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, and their display remains a highlight. On a long wall all about process and fieldwork there is a field journal on display, alongside extracts from several other journals to illustrate the sorts of information they contain.
And on the same wall is an example of the method by which fossils are encased in plaster in the field, along with wall text explaining the structure and meaning of the unique identifiers used to track each package and the data with which it is associated.
The significance of these moments should not be overstated. These are large institutions, and the fact that there are a small number of field notebooks and other paperwork on display is far from an explosion of archives and historicism in the halls of natural history.
But the fact all these examples are from paleontology stands out; the discipline is visibly and repeatedly revealing its processes and practices to the public. In addition to field notebooks and open fossil labs there are videos, information about how artists’ renderings are developed, and explicit discussion of the disagreements, debates and changing beliefs about dinosaurs and other extinct animals.
Maybe it’s the Jurassic Park effect that makes paleontologists confident the public is interested in how they work as well as what they find. Whatever the reason, other disciplines in these museums don’t seem to share this belief. In not revealing their documentation, processes and debates, the science behind most natural sciences remains invisible to the general public.
In this area, as in so many others, dinosaurs rule the natural history museum.
 Tom Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors: the antiquarian imagination in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; Melbourne, 1996, p. 26.
 ibid., 196.