Citizen Scientists Creating Knowledge: Report on a Collaborative Transcription Workshop – Part II: The Archive

In the second session of our transcription course, we met Sandra Miehlbradt (Natural History Museum, Berlin), head archivist of the Historical Division (“Historische Arbeitsstelle” or short HAS) of the Natural History Museum, Berlin. She introduced us to the history and structure of the museum’s archive as well as her tasks as the keeper of the institution’s memory.

The history of the Natural History Museum and therefore also of the HAS is complex. The Museum evolved from the collections of the Anatomical-Zootomical Museum, the Zoological Museum, and the Mineralogical Museum, which initially were part of the Universität zu Berlin (founded in 1810, since 1949 Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin or short Humboldt University). By the end of the century, the collections outgrew the university’s capacities and moved into a new building in the Invalidenstraße on 2 December 1889. The new, integrated Natural History Museum presented only carefully selected parts of its holdings to the public and restricted access to the full collections to researchers only.

The first administrative archive was created as early as 1810. After the museum and its collections had survived two world wars, efforts to establish a more comprehensive archive of the museum intensified. From the 1960s onwards, the biologist and museologist Ilse Jahn advocated for an archive collection housed in the museum. The archive was finally declared a central institution of the Natural History Museum in 1988, two years prior to German reunification. In 2009, the museum and therefore also the HAS left the Humboldt University to join the Leibniz Association.

Storeroom of the Historical Division @Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

The HAS is the keeper of the “Historical Image and Document Collections”. It is also tasked with making these collections accessible to the public and to research projects. It keeps over 90.000 files and about 20.000 images. Today, the archive’s inventory groups are arranged in five areas or sections. The section “written material” includes correspondence and catalogues. It is organized along the museum’s administrative structures. The four other sections are structured (at least in part) along their subject matter. They include, for instance, documents that were handed over to the HAS by individuals such as museum directors, staff and collectors, the portrait collection as well as the object collection. The image collection also includes drawings of various insects and animals by the German scholars Wilhelm von Blandowski (1822-1878) and Gerard Krefft (1830-1881). These were made in the context of scientific expeditions to the colonies and often contain indigenous knowledge.

As the museum’s archivist, Sandra Miehlbradt explained, her duties consist of four key tasks: Firstly, she evaluates the documents that are being transferred to the archive. She deems them worthy of preservation if they are valuable for historical research or indispensable for legislation, jurisdiction or administration. Secondly, she files and catalogues the documents. At the HAS she sorts the documents by context of origin (provenance principle) and numbers them in the order in which they get into her hands (so-called “Bär principle”). While archives recorded documents by using index cards prior the digital age, today the HAS uses the database “Daphne”, to catalogue the drawings and images to facilitate their searchability. In the future, the archive intends to provide public access to the entirety of its database. Thirdly, Sandra Miehlbradt conserves and restores the archived materials to preserve them for generations to come. To achieve that, the archive stores the materials in a cool and steady climate to avoid damage such as mould, brittleness or rust. Fourthly, the archivist takes care of public relations and educational work, such as our transcription class.

Sandra Miehlbradt emphasized that the collections of the Natural History Museum was created under colonial conditions and that the HAS shares the institutions colonial history. Markedly, the museum’s collections and the accompanying documents increased in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Museum employees as well as colonial administrators, soldiers and researchers brought numerous objects, zoological, mineralogical and botanical samples as well as human remains from German and other European colonies to Berlin for study and to enhance the Kaiserreich’s prestige as a nation of science and knowledge. Museum directors also collaborated with individual researchers across the globe. One of them was Richard Schomburgk, who participated in a colonial research expedition to British Guiana from 1840 to 1844 and whose travel report we will examine and transcribe in the course of our workshop.

Anna Rudi


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