The Initial Spark: Building Archival Donor Relationships at The Mint

So far in the blog posts about our summer internships, Kim and I have been discussing our work with archival collections—processing artists’ materials, constructing finding aids, and organizing papers into acid free folders. Care of collections is a key aspect of the archivist’s job, but just as important is the role that the archivist plays in establishing and sustaining relationships with donors of archival materials. These are the individuals and organizations who donate their personal papers for long term preservation, storage, and access in an institutional archives like The Mint or the Archives of American Art. This role is multi-faceted, including meeting with donors to help them appraise their personal materials, as well as explaining the role and purpose of archives, and what handing over personal materials to an institution actually entails. This relationship is built on trust and mutual understanding of the needs and expectations of both the archives and donor.

In this post, I’ll discuss a series of donor information packets that I’ve been working on at The Mint, which will play a part in initiating this relationship between The Mint Museum Archives and potential donors of archival materials. For this project, I created four information packets, each addressed to the unique needs of a different group of potential donors: Mint staff, affiliate organizations, artists, and a generic packet for individuals or organizations connected to The Mint in any other number of ways. The goal of the information packet is to familiarize donors with archival processes at The Mint and to outline the myriad reasons why a potential donor might consider donating their personal papers or organizational records to the archives.1

Former Mint Exhibition Director, and ceramic artist, Herb Cohen. This image is used to illustrate the Staff information packet.

Former Mint Exhibition Director, and ceramic artist, Herb Cohen. This image is used to illustrate the Staff information packet.

While the packets for the specific groups differ from each other in important ways, all of the packets are organized into the same four sections. In the overview section, the packet discusses the mission of The Mint Museum Archives and how this fits into the overall goals of The Mint Museum. This initial section emphasizes the importance of archival donations from all of these groups in order to build a more complete picture of the institution. In its history and ongoing activities, The Mint is a diverse institution, constituted by the varied activities of these different groups: artists create the work that fill the museum’s galleries; staff members curate exhibitions, lead outreach initiatives into the community, plan education programs, and keep the building itself in operation; and affiliate groups augment the activity of the museum in countless ways, from fundraising to growing collections. Crafting four distinct packets allowed me to emphasize in turn the particular importance of each group to The Mint.

The next section of the packet addresses why an individual or organization might want to donate their materials, laying out the potential benefits to donating your materials to The Mint, such as ensuring professional care for the long term preservation of historically significant documents and enabling access to and use of these materials for future generations. Although the general benefits of donating materials to an archive are similar across the different donor groups, I was able to touch on benefits unique to each donor group as well. Artists can archive their personal materials with the same institution where many of their artworks are held, augmenting the potential for historical insight into both their creative lives and artworks. As the activities of affiliate organizations so often dovetail with those of the museum, housing organizational records at The Mint Archives places these materials in the context of The Mint’s records, allowing for the relationships between affiliates and the museum to be reflected in the archives as well.

The next section covers what kinds of materials each group might donate. Each archival collection is unique, and so no list of materials can be comprehensive, but each packet sets out a broad list of possible items, including many kinds of materials specific to the different donor groups. Artists might donate sketches for artworks or videotapes documenting their artistic processes, while Mint staff might consider donating meeting notes or professional correspondence. This section helps potential donors understand what an archives is looking for, and what might be considered “historically significant.”

The information packet is only the first step in establishing a relationship between the donor and the archivist. The final section of the packet, on how to go about donating materials, urges potential donors to set up a meeting with The Mint archivist to further discuss the specifics of their personal or organization materials and talk through the logistics of appraising and moving their materials for archival ingest. The information packet plays a critical role in spotlighting The Mint Museum Archives and, by speaking directly to different groups of Mint stakeholders, promotes the importance of donating materials to the archives. The information packet may plant the idea of donating to the archives, but after this initial spark, the donor needs the personal interaction with the archivist to truly establish a productive relationship and know that their materials are going to the right place. The archivist can then address concerns and questions unique to the donor’s archival papers, go over deed of gift agreements, and set up arrangements for future acquisitions of materials still in active use. The donor relationship continues long after the initial donation, and hopefully the information packet provides a strong foundation for this relationship.

Working on these donor packets proved to be a significant learning experience for me as well. In the process of researching and drafting the packets, I gained a better understanding of the many stakeholders that have played a part in The Mint’s history. Each of these groups has a unique association with the museum, and as a result each will have a different kind of relationship with the archives. The archivist needs to navigate different kinds of relationships with different kinds of donors, an insight that this project illustrated for me.

As a final takeaway from this project, I also learned how nearly every project in a museum requires collaboration across departments. Once I finish drafting the information packets, I will send these documents to the graphic design team, which is part of the Communications Department. They will take my text, as well as some images that I picked out from the archives, and design the final product: an aesthetically pleasing, print-on-demand information packet to hand out to potential donors. Just as the archives would not be able to create this polished final product without the help of graphic design, no department in The Mint works in isolation. As an intern, this project was a great experience, not only to learn more about the ins and outs of the archival profession, but also to better see how an archive fits into the vibrant and complex work of an art museum.

1 For my research on this project, I looked to existing donor packets created by the Harvard University Archives, the Society of American Archivists, the Simmons College Archives, and the Northwestern University Archives. These examples were extremely helpful as I created the donor packets attuned to the specific needs of The Mint Museum.