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30 Dec
Fri / 2011

New Year Reflections

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The following entry is an abridged version of my introductory remarks at a recent meeting to discuss the implementation of an Electronic Records Archives system. It revisits the motivating factors for seeking the planning grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission as the MFAH enters the final months of the project, having received a no-cost extension from the commission, in which the nature and time line of the implementation phase is to be determined.    

As most of you are aware, the MFAH is concluding a two-year grant funded by the NHPRC for the planning of an Electronic Records Archives. Today we are meeting to realistically assess the resources that would be required for an implementation. Before we begin that discussion, I wanted to give a brief background on the museum’s recent history, the archival program and why an ERA implementation is being considered at this particular juncture.

During the tenure of our immediate past director, Peter C. Marzio, which ran from 1982-2010, the MFAH saw unprecedented growth, in both the physical campus and in programming. A second museum building, designed by Pritzker laureate, Rafael Moneo, opened in 2000 in conjunction with our centennial. A second decorative arts house museum, Rienzi, opened in 1999. The number of curatorial departments more than doubled; educational programming and the international Core fellowship flourished; and the Conservation, Archives and Information Technology departments were all founded during those years. The MFAH now has over 600 employees, with approximately 500 computer accounts.

In the years leading up to the 2000 opening of the Audrey Jones Beck building, several important changes were made in the institutional electronic environment. The original DOS based CMS was updated to a more robust system; a donor database was introduced for the Development department; the first library OPAC went on-line; and the first web site was launched. Perhaps more significantly, the campus was networked and all professional staff provided with MSOffice Suite. As a result of the latter, the MFAH is in the advantageous position of having extremely standardized file formats.  

The Archives were established in 1984; while that makes it one of the oldest art museums archives in the U.S., it also makes us very fortunate to have records that date back to our founding in 1900. We function primarily as an institutional archive, although outside collections of individuals or organizations closely associated w/ the MFAH are acquired and now number 80. Institutional documents maintained in the Archives are, for example, trustee minutes, curatorial correspondence with artists, director’s correspondence with national figures, educational programming files, and exhibition files (which is the largest and most researched record series). Additionally, the Archives maintains the Architectural drawing collection, the Archival photography collection, and the A/V collection of lectures, oral histories and performances. These collections are now all born digital

The Archives are opened to the public, although records are generally closed for 15 years.

The department handles over 400 research request per year, typically half from staff and half from the public. Internally, the administration, curatorial, Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens (the American decorative arts house museum), education, development, conservation, accounting, and marketing departments are the greatest users. Externally, other art museums; students and scholars of art, design, and architecture; regional historians; and art dealers comprise the bulk of the users. Archival material supports building projects, capital campaigns, exhibition planning, provenance research as well as catalogues raissonne and other scholarly publications.     

Since 1994, an institutional records management program has been operated by the Archives department, but remains paper-based. However, 75% of institutional record series are now generated electronically (which thankfully puts us a little behind the 90% curb). In some cases, particularly with the databases, (even in my own department and most recently in Conservation, Retail and H.R.) there are no paper equivalents. Additionally, an approximate 80% of the 60 TBs on the MFAH's servers consists of unstructured data. Except for a brief and unsuccessful experiment with an ERM system, the unstructured data has expanded without any management or classification.

This brings us to some of the main motivations for implementing ERA now:

            1. As Archives director, the continuity of the institutional archival record, was the primary impetus for obtaining the NHPRC grant and pursuing implementation of an ERA system. I feel for a number of reasons that the MFAH is at a critical juncture. One is that e-records created in 1998 should become accessible for public research within the next 3 years. For over 25 years, there has been a social contract with the public – as well as with our own staff - to provide access to the museum’s archival record and there is an expectation that the access will continue, however, at present, the Archives does not have a means to provide more than a poor and fractional representation of the MFAH’s full archival record over the past decade. 

            2. There are also concerns posed by our regulatory obligations. Most notably the American Association of Museums has adopted Sarbanes Oxley as an e-record keeping model and is requiring e-records management as a part of the re-accreditation process. That was a major impetus for seeking the NHPRC ERA planning grant. Additionally, ARMA has introduced the GARP Maturity Model; I would like the MFAH to be in a position to conduct an external audit of record-keeping practices following implementation of the ERA. Lastly, I feel that some regulatory compliance, such as restricting Personally Identifiable Information, is actually easier in an electronic environment.

            3. I also feel that the electronic environment offers greater methods for verification of provenance and authenticity of records than traditional paper-based ones do; this is critical not only for historic research but for litigation. However, in current environment, authenticity of the records is obscured by the silos of data that have developed in each department’s domain that are often redundant, due, in part, to the access restrictions inherent in a networked environment. Productivity is hampered by an abundance of data without management or declaration of official records.

            4. Conversely, a managed electronic environment promises increased productivity and efficiency for the archival and discovery functions. Presently, it is not unusual for archives staff to drive several miles to our off-site facility, climb a ladder to retrieve a box and search through folders to retrieve what are essentially print-outs of records that exist on the network.

            5. However unmanaged this data may be, it often represents significant investment of the MFAH's monetary and staff resources. Protecting the MFAH's digital assets and intellectual property constitutes another motivating factor for an ERA implementation.

            6. Lastly, there is a desire to be both innovative and responsible in our custodianship. Achieving the functionality required for the maintenance of e-records will allow the MFAH Archives to continue to acquire personal papers, as these collections invariably become born-digital. It will support the goals of the MFAH’s Long-Range Plan with regard to collecting, preservation, research and interpretation, and will reflect well on our ability to be effective custodians.

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