Mondays, 12:30-4:30 PM, room 639, Spring 2004
Instructor: Howard Besser
Office hours: Mondays 4:30-6:30, and by appointment

History and Culture of Museums, Archives, and other Repositories H72.1801

Syllabus 7.7

(latest version of syllabus always at

On a macro level, this course examines the different types of institutions that collect moving image material. It explains how cultural institutions differ from one another, and from other institutions that collect and manage moving image collections(including corporate institutions). It also examines why certain types of material are not collected by any institutions. On a micro level, the course examines what the various departments within a collecting institution do. Students will learn about missions and ethics, as well as about accessioning, budgeting, and fundraising. Aspects of project management and handling competing interests within the organization will also be covered. The course also looks at the history of moving image archives and related organizations.  Includes visits to NYC museums, archives, and libraries.

This is a seminar, with emphasis on readings and class discussions.

Jan 26 Theory & Concepts

Assignments due before class:
  • Read:
  • Besser, Howard. (2004) "The Museum-Library-Archive." In Feb 2004 report to Canadian Heritage Information Network (forthcoming)
  • Topics covered:

    Feb 2 Histories of Libraries, Museums, & Archives

    Assignments due before class:
  • Read:
  • O'Toole, James. (1990) "The History of the Archives Profession." In Understanding Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists., pp. 27-47
  • Steedman, Carolyn. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002, pages ix-xi and 1-16
  • Microcosms.  Cabinets of Curiosity: Sites of Knowledge
  • New  York Public Library (2002).  History of Cabinets of Curiosities, and Prominent Figures and Cabinets in the History of Wunderkammern  --follow links (The Public's Treasures: A Cabinet of Curiosities from The New York Public Library)
  • Walker Art Center.  Wunderkammern, Cabinets of Curiosity, and Memory Palaces
  • Hein, Hilde S.  "Museum Typology" in The Museum in Transition: A Philosophical Perspective. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000, pp 17-36.
  • Evans, Jessica.  "Nation and Representation'" in Boswell, David and Jessica Evans eds. Representing the Nation: A Reader: Histories, Heritage and Museums. New York: Routledge, 1999, pp 1-8
  • Innes, H.A. (1995) "Media in Ancient Empires." In Communication in History: Technology, Culture, Societ. D. Crowley and P. Heyer, eds.  White Plains, NY : Longman Publishers.
  • McCluhan, M. (1964) "The Written Word: An Eye for An Ear."  In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.  (pp. 84-90)  New York: Mentor.
  • O'Donnell, James. (1998) Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace.  Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press.  (see selections on website)
  • Ong, Walter. (1982) "Print, Space, and Closure." In Orality and Literacy (pp. 117-138) New York : Methuen.
  • Drucker, Johanna. "The Codex and Its Variations." The Century of Artists' Books. New York: Granary Books, 1997. 121-59
  • Shuman, Bruce A.  (1992)  "A Brief History of Information Issues", in Foundations and Issues in Library and Information Science, Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, pp 8-25
  • Feather, John. (1994) The Information Society: A Study ofContiuity and Change.  London : Library Association Publishing.
  • Buckland, Michael. (1997) What is a Document?", Journal of the American Society for Information Science 48 (9), pp. 804-809
  • Bush, Vannevar.(1945)  As We May Think, Atlantic Monthly 176, July, pp.101-108
  • Buckland, Michael.  Emanuel Goldberg, Electronic Document Retrieval, And Vannevar Bush's Memex, Journal of the American Society for Information Science 43, no. 4 (May 1992): 284-29
  • Baker, Nicholson. (1996) The Projector." in  The Size of Thoughts.  New York: Random House, pp. 36-50
  • Mann, Sarah Ziebell. "The Evolution of American Moving Image Preservation: Defining the Preservation Landscape (1967-1977)", The Moving Image 1:2 (Fall 2001), pp 1-20
  • Rosen, Robert.  "The UCLA Film and Television Archive: A Retrospective Look, The Moving Image 2:2 (Fall 2002)
  • Optional
  • Current Events Topics covered:
  • DVD on Library of Congress
  • video on Paul Otlet -- The Man Who Wanted to Classify the World
  • What is the history of cultural institutions?
  • How are their histories similar and different?
  • How do their histories shape what an institution collects, how they organize their collection, and how they provide access to it?
  • Western civilization has relied heavily on surviving written accounts to interpret the past.  How has that affected how we see various groups that didn't have the capability to create written accounts, or to make sure that those accounts persist over time?  Can we do more justice to those groups by studying artifacts rather tahn written accounts?
  • Is history objective?
  • Museums and Libraries assert systematic organizations upon their works, and to some degree, all knowledge.  What effects does this have outside the walls of these intsitutions?  Are there both positive and negative effects?
  • Following Suzanne Briet's assertions (as cited by Buckland), does an object have documental properties merely by moving it into a collecting institution?  Does everything collected by an institution automatically have documental properties?  Do objects outside collecting institutions have documental properties before they enter that institution?
  • Archives
  • How is the origin of writing tied to the origins of record-keeping?
  • If an Archive is a set of records from the past, gathered for a particular purpose, how can archivists serve people who want to use those records for a completely different purpose?
  • Are 2 people doing research on similar topics in the same archive bound to reach the same conclusion?
  • How should archivists react to revisionist histories written based upon records in their collections?
  • What is the background/history of Archives?  Why were the objects in them collected?  Who or what were the collections supposed to serve?
  • Discuss Foucault's statement that the archive is "the system that establishes statements as events and things".
  • With the rise of postmodernism in the 1990s, the rift between social and cultural historians became a wide gulf.  How did one of these groups try to assert their legitimacy?
  • What do Derrida and Foucault each have to say about the archive as a symbol or form of power?
  • Steedman (discussing Derrida discussing Freud) says "The archive is a record of the past, at the same time as it points to the future."  Discuss this.
  • Museums
  • What were several of the immediate ancestors of museums?  How did they differ from museums (in terms of: collection, orientation, organization, who they were for, what stories they told, ...)
  • Museums are sometimes focused on objects that are unique, and other times on objects that are universal.  How are these two foci different?  And can the same museum be focused on both at the same time?
  • What type of museum may have the following words used in relation to it: elite, connoisseurship, stuffiness, taste, reverence?  Are these accurate?  Can these terms be applied to other types of collecting institutions?
  • What type of museum may have the following words used in relation to it: experience, discovery, participatory, hands-on, interactive, dialog?  Are objects important to this type of museum?  What is this museum's focus of attention?
  • Hein says that both History Museums and Museums of Industry & Technology only use the objects in their collections as support for interpretation of human history.  Is that an adequate assessment?  And if so, how does that change the role of the object and descriptive information about it?
  • Hein claims that History Museums "inhabit the ambiguous ground between objectivity and subjectivity, where cognition and feeling, fact and value, intermingle."  She says that there is a politics to how these objects are represented, and that a museum's choice of a narrative perspective "is a complex judgment, arising out of political, economic, aesthetic, and practical considerations".  She contends that, using objects as a means to an end rather than as the end itself, and incorporating them into theatrical stagings of recreated moments of history is a fairer way than imposing meaning on object description.  Do you agree or disagree with her, and why?
  • Hein makes both sociological and semiotic arguments.  She says that "museums are part of a socio-cultural system that creates and disseminates value", that museums act to confer identity, and that the museum propagates a system of mutual reification of subjects and objects.  She also says that the museum's role is to fix a particular type of encoded meaning into objects, and says that the museum is part of "a signifying system that mediates objective reality."  Do you agree with her assessment?  And if it is true, how does a museum operate in a postmodern society of multiple interpretations?
  • Disciplines such as art history, anthropology, and geology arose around the same time as museums.  Is there any relationship?
  • What role did museums play in defining the bounds of a subset of knowledge and how it should be organized and viewed?  What is the relationship between museums and a cannon in a particular discipline?
  • Jessica Evans quotes Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach saying, "The princely gallery spoke for and about the prince.  The visitor was meant to be impressed by the prince's virtue, taste and wealth.... But now the state, as an abstract entity replaces the king as host.  This change redefines the visitor.  He is no longer the subordinate of a prince or lord.  Now is he addressed as a citizen and therefore a shareholder in the state".  Discuss this.
  • Museums came to prominence around the same time that nation-states did.  Is there a relationship?  What does Jessica Evans say about museums and the narrative of nationhood?
  • Hein  claims tht Bourdieu argues that "the objective of art museums is not to induce the love of art in everyone, but to underwrite existing cultural distinctions by 'naturlizing' a stratified culture, so that 'cultured people can believe in barbarism and persuade the barbarians of their own barbarity'".  Do you think that this is a fair assessment of art museums?
  • Hein quotes George Brown Goode, one of the Smithsonian's early curators as contending that the museum is "a collection of instructive labels, each illustrated by a well-selected specimen".  Is this idea that the organization and description is more important than the object itself -- is this true for all types of collecting institutions?  Is it true for any?
  • Under what circumstances should museums be more concerned with objects, and when should they be more concerned with experiences?  As experience-based exhibits become more interactive and audiences become "doers" rather than mere "viewers", will that increase pressure for all types of culture to become more interactive?  How might this effect conventional cinema and television?
  • Libraries
  • When did the library world discover that their domain included more than written material?  What roles did Suzanne Briet and Paul Otlet play in librarianship and documentation?
  • Information technologists trace the conceptual origin of today's internet world to Vannevar Bush and his writing about the hypothetical "memex".  Did these ideas really originate with Bush?  What does this say about history and myth?
  • Feb 9 Types of Institutions and departments/functions within them

    Assignments due before class:
  • Reports from visits to cultural institutions
  • Read:
  • Currrent Events:
  • So Many Films, but Only a Few Are Treasures, NY Times, Feb 5, 2004
  • Superbowl half-time --  Should it be preserved?  In raw form?  What kinds of things should be censored in preservation efforts?
  • When a Search Engine Isn't Enough, Call a Librarian, NY Times, Feb 5, 2004
  • Artist's Heirs Sue Amsterdam Over 14 Works, NY Times, Feb 3, 2004
  • "Huntington Hartford's Archive" in Arts Briefing, NY Times, Feb 5, 2004
  • Toil, Tears and Sweat in Brooklyn, NY Times, Feb 6, 2004
  • Let's All Gather Round the Screen, NY Times, Feb 5, 2004
  • For Better HDTV Displays, It's All About the Chip, NY Times, Feb 5, 2004
  • The Pornography Industry vs. Digital Pirates, NY Times, Feb 8, 2004
  • Investigators Raid Offices of Kazaa in Australia, NY Times, Feb 7, 2004

  • Topics covered:

    Feb 23* Ethics & Values--Mona Jimenez

    Assignments due before class: Topics covered:

    Mar 1  Job Roles within Cultural Institutions, Professionalism--Antonia Lant

    Assignments due before class: Topics covered:

    Mar 8 Visit to American Museum of Natural History

  • Meet promptly at 1PM at the staff entrance of the American Museum of Natural History   (79th St & Central Park West, below ground entrance); Barbara Mathe will be guiding us
  • Assignments due before class:
  • Mar 22 Case Study of Museum Film Cataloging, Organization, and Description

    Guest Speaker -- Jon Gartenberg

    Assignments due before class:

    Topics covered:

    Mar 29 Philosophies and Roles of Cultural Institutions & How they differ

  • Assignments due before class:
  • Topics covered:

    Apr 12 Processes: Budgeting, Fundraising, Project Management

    Guest Speaker -- Sarah Himmelfarb
    Assignments due before class:

    Apr 19* ???xxxxxxx

    Assignments due before class: Topics covered:

    Apr 26 The Future: How do things change in a digital world?

    Assignments due before class:
  • Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel from Labyrinths (or The Book of Sand) (see review  )
  • Besser, Howard. (1998)  The Shape of the 21st Century Library, in Milton Wolf et. al. (eds.), Information Imagineering: Meeting at the Interface, Chicago: American Library Association, pp. 133-146
  • Besser, Howard.(1995)   From Internet to Information Superhighway, in James Brook and Iain A.Boal (eds.), Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information, San Francisco: City Lights, pp. 59-70.
  • Besser, Howard. (1994) "Movies-on-demand May Significantly Change the Internet", ASIS Bulletin 20 (7), Oct/Nov, pp. 15-17
  • Anne J. Gilliland-Swetland. Enduring Paradigm, New Opportunities: The Value of the Archival Perspective in the Digital Environment , Council on Library & Information Resources, pub89, pp 1-16 [document pages 1-16, not Acrobat pages 1-16]
  • Steve Dietz, Howard Besser, Kati Geber.  The Virtual Museum: The Next GenerationFeb 2004 report to Canadian Heritage Information Network
  • Borgman, Christine.(2000) The Premise and Promise of a Global Information Infrastructure. First Monday, 5:8, August 2000
  • Woodbury, Marsha ((2002).  "The Fight of the Century? Informatiion Ethics versus E-Commerce" in Lipinski, Tomas (ed.) Libraries, Museums, and Archives: Legal Issues and Ethical Challenges in the New Information Era, Lantham, MD: Scarcrow, pp 177-192
  • Besser, Howard (June 2002). Commodification of Culture Harms Creators, The Information Commons, New Technology, and the Future of Libraries, vol 1, issue 1, American Library Association
  • Readings on the InterPARES 2 project
  • National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program
  • Topics covered:

    May 3 Final Classroom Presentations

    Assignments due before class: Topics covered:
    Major Assignments

    Visit Cultural Institutions: Visit at least 2 cultural institutions for at least 45 minutes each.  In each institution, observe what people do there: what they look at, what they consult or read, who they talk with, how much time they spend with artifacts, how long they stay in one place, etc.  Note what time of day and day of week you visited, and hypothesize how things might be different at different times.  Compare what happens in each of the places you visit.  Write a 2-5 page paper with your observations, and present this in class.

    Lead a short class discussion based on readings: Read one book  (from list).  Sumarize the ideas in an oral class presentation (approximately 10 minutes), and then lead a 15 minute class discussion on the issues you've raised. Individual Final Project -- student choice, but must be related to something covered during the semester: A major term project.  Topic must be approved by the instructors by March 8. Must be presented in class during the last class session. Here are a few examples: