I only went to the Museo Universitario de Ciencias y Artes (MUCA) at the Ciudad Universitaria campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México by accident. It was an unplanned visit during a day meandering the campus with a visitor, taking in the rhythms of university life and stopping by the ofrendas set up around campus for Día de los Muertos. What a pleasant surprise to see that the current MUCA exhibit celebrates the 50th anniversary of the foundation of UNAM’s university archives (AHUNAM), aptly titled Salimos de la bóveda: a 50 años del Archivo Histórico de la UNAM.
Many people don’t know what an archive looks like, what’s in an archive, and what kinds of work goes on in an archive. This exhibit is a creative teaching tool for getting a sense of what’s at the Archivo Histórico de la UNAM, and what’s going on behind the scenes, in spaces where regular users and visitors might not usually get a chance to see. Each of the fondos, or collections, held at the AHUNAM is featured with selections of documents, photographs and objects on display alongside a brief collection description (a scope and contents note, for those familiar with archival lingo), the size (or, extent) of the collection, the date ranges for the collection, and some information about what type of inventory or finding aid is available.
The displays are mounted on walls of boxes, provoking our imaginations of what we perceive an archive to be and transposing that alongside exhibits that actually show us what archives are and what they look like. One example is the exhibit area featuring the Ignacio García Téllez papers. A full-scale representation of the papers of the former University rector demystifies the life of an archives behind closed doors. We usually think of archives as resting inertly behind closed doors, somewhere deep and unseen inside a locked vault. But the door is open to us, and we are invited in to take a look, to see where a living archive waits for us to come and ask of it our questions. The boxes are ordered on the shelves, just like the actual collection that is housed at the AHUNAM. We learn about the García Téllez’s life and his archive, but we also learn about the acid free boxes, the organizational structure of the archive, and how all the boxes look together on the shelves, and even how the archivists use the stepping stools to reach the top shelves to pull boxes for the researchers, like us, who come to consult the archive. Now, we know the archive, where it lives and how it lives. Because archives are alive.
Archives need routine maintenance and regular preventative care, just like any living creature. We see preservation tools and explanations of the preservation and conservation techniques employed by the AHUNAM to care for its collections displayed dynamically, giving us the sense that the conservationist has just left the lab for her lunch break. We get the feeling that it is an active space, a space that is constantly in motion, with a purpose to ensure that future generations will be able to visit and make meanings from the materials residing within the archive.
And finally, there is the acknowledgement of the role of the digital through online catalogs and finding aids, and digitized collections. We can consult the online catalog and the digitized collections, and prepare for our very own visit to the AHUNAM to see some of the materials we learned about in the exhibit. While not much was referenced regarding born-digital materials and current collecting efforts of born-digital faculty papers, I hope to find out more about these types of projects during my Fulbright research in Mexico.
Perhaps one day we will figure out a way to transmit the wonder and complexity of the digital realm into an exhibit that plays to our wonder of and fascination with the physical traits of archives, as we know them in our imaginations. Salimos de la bóveda is an enormously creative work of outreach and advocacy. It gives us a glimpse into the secret lives of archives–archives that are living, rich and complex. The invitation has been extended to us to come and get to know, and tell, the stories that are playing out behind open doors.
Salimos de la bóveda: a 50 años del Archivo Histórico de la UNAM is on display at the Museo Universitario de Ciencias y Artes at the Ciudad Universitaria campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Mexico City) until December 5, 2015.