Searching for Meaning and Justice in Archives and Loan Forms: The Beginnings of a Museum Information Management Career in NYC

Sloan Strader, Registrar

In taking this time to reflect and document the beginning of my career in the museum field, I think back to my passion for justice—  specifically thinking critically about power structures in regards to information and how that informs our sense of the world around us.

When I was an undergraduate student in the Pacific Northwest at the University of Puget Sound, my path towards meaningful and justice-oriented work felt more clear. I majored in English and African American Studies and completed a research project during my sophomore year that introduced me to the world of archives. I studied the diary entries of late 19th-century landscape artist Abby Williams Hill, a white woman living in Washington State with an interest in social causes. I conducted research on her friendship with Tuskegee Institute founder and activist for the black community, Booker T. Washington. Abby’s diary entries offered a unique perspective on Washington’s work and how folks geographically removed from the South were interested in the issues happening there. In a more general sense, this project also opened my eyes to the power of information. Although I’m no longer writing research papers on historical figures, the idea of information as power has stuck with me and greatly informed my choice to pursue internships and academic courses related to museum information management.

Graduate School

I am a masters candidate at the Pratt School of Information studying Museums and Digital Cultures, a museum studies program with an emphasis on the ways museums use digital technology.

My program has a great balance of technical skills and theory. The technical skills challenge me, like in my Linked Open Data class where I was asked to write a preliminary grant proposal that required extensive research and data modeling. The theory provides an equal challenge, as I am asked to think deeply about the way information is organized within institutions like libraries and museums, as well as who is organizing it. In my opinion it’s the relationship between the technical and the theoretical that activates the power information holds. For instance, my particular area of interest is Linked Open Data, a way to model, interlink, and describe data, increasing information visibility while also contextualizing and challenging the idea of linear narratives and histories. All in all, my academic pursuits have greatly informed and equipped me to apply (and to my surprise receive) some prestigious internships that have given me great experience in the field where I’ve had the opportunity to put some of these ideas into practice.

Experiential Learning

In terms of jobs and internships during my short time here in NY, I hit the ground running.

I started my job as an Exhibition’s Graduate Assistant my first day of classes last August, a position that has given me invaluable practical experience in regards to the exhibition process. I see justice and information as power in our programming, but the day to day tasks of building checklists and cross-referencing condition and loan reports have given me practical skills that have proven invaluable in my later work at MoMA and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I see now that each job opportunity was a building block, and although I had little faith in my application to be an intern at MoMA, I was hired. I’m not sure why I was hired, but I am grateful for the graduate coursework and job experience that helped me in my position as an Archives Intern last spring.

My work at MoMA processing exhibition files prepared me for my current position at The Metropolitan Museum of Art where I am currently an MuSE intern for the Registrar Office. I am working with the registrars on a variety of tasks but my main project for the summer is processing and describing archived loan forms. Although the information in the Registrar Office is not an educational resource for the public like in the Archives Department, I still see room for investigation and justice. There are opportunities to learn from the ways information was understood and categorized in the past, helping us inform our future practices.

The Future

Looking to the future in the museum field, I see change. I see museums moving towards a more digital future in regards to managing internal records (less paper would be great!). I also see museums thinking critically about their pasts, reexamining their collections and histories.

Thinking about my post-graduate future this is so exciting to me, and although I don’t plan to be on the front lines of a curatorial re-working of a permanent collection I would be equally thrilled to work behind the scenes with the registrar moving art and working on installations, or tending to records of the past and assisting researchers in the archives. As for next year, I am ecstatic to work as MoMA’s Linked Open Data Fellow, back in the Archives Department with my colleagues and supervisor from my previous internship. I will also return to my exhibitions job, making checklists and unpacking crates.

And as I finish my final year of graduate school, I will continue to meditate on my favorite book of essays by Paper Monument titled As radical, as mother, as shelter: What should art institutions do now? In the book, artists and museum professionals consider justice and power within museum spaces, especially in today’s world. In my work and future career, I hope to keep this difficult question What should art institutions do now?  in mind even as I remove staples from onion skin paper and enter data into spreadsheets. I will think critically about how my work and how information is classified will impact the content put forth by the institution I serve.

About Sloan

Sloan is in her second year of the Museums and Digital Cultures Masters of Science Program at the Pratt School of Information. In addition to her work as an Exhibitions Graduate Assistant, MoMA Archives Intern, The Met MuSE Intern, and MoMA Linked Data Fellow, Sloan is also the Chairwoman of her school’s National Emerging Museum Professional Network for the 2019/20 academic year. She’s also a huge fan of Wikidata.

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