Curating an Archival Internship for the Undergraduate Cultural Heritage Experience

By Zoe Shelby

When arriving at McDaniel College’s Esther Prangley Rice Gallery, patrons experience the main space by viewing contemporary art in circulating exhibitions. However, visitors rarely notice the collection of antiquities, including a set of Japanese armor, three Zuni pots, two pairs of Native American moccasins, and a headdress. I could sense the age of these objects through their outdated, discolored labels and shabby appearance.

Four archival objects on a white background

Figure 1: Examples of the objects in the Myers Collection: (top left) terracotta Greco-Roman sculpture, Egyptian ushabti, Zuni pot, and Native American beaded moccasins.

Peterson Hall, the historic building home to the gallery and objects, has been known for its stuffy summer conditions and cold winter temperatures. Being a student at McDaniel, and having a personal interest in art conservation, I knew this fluctuating environment could not have been safe for the treasures living inside. My interest led me to find answers: I wanted to know when these objects had last been cared for. After discussing these possibilities with the receptionist and the gallery director, they directed me to connect with McDaniel College’s Archivist, Gwenlyn Coddington, who subsequently revealed to me the breadth of objects in the Myers collection: early Dynastic-Middle Kingdom Egyptian objects, Hellenistic Greco-Roman pieces, and Native American textiles (Fig.1). She also explained how caring for the collection had become more difficult as other responsibilities within the college moved her attention elsewhere.

I think my passion surprised Ms. Coddington; I was a student volunteering to take on the duties related to an unrecorded and high-risk collection, and there had never been a summer internship with the Archives before. However, after a few meetings, Ms. Coddington took me under her wing and together we developed a plan for the first student-archives internship in which I was given the opportunity to reprocess and interact hands-on with the collection: learning about safe handling, photographing, labeling, data entry, and the impact of environmental and storage conditions on antiquities.

My first task was to learn the comprehensive history behind the collection, so I began with compiling the provenance. The story begins with Winter W. Myers, a Maryland native and an avid art collector and traveler. Myers acquired most of his collection while traveling the world over two decades in the 1930s and 40s.1 Upon concluding his international travels, he believed his collection would be best suited for preservation at the community’s antiquital hub, Western Maryland College (what would become McDaniel College in 2002). Although Myers did not pursue an education at McDaniel, his childhood pastor, Dr. Lowell Ensor, served as McDaniel’s President from 1947–1972. Dr. Ensor actually approached Sotheby’s for appraisal intending to sell the collection. However, for reasons still unknown, it disappeared from the priority list. Twenty years later, the chair of McDaniel’s Art Department, Professor Wasyl Palijczuk, found the collection deteriorating in a dark, damp attic. Fearful for its condition, he shipped a portion of the objects off to an Egyptologist and to the Walters Art Museum for professional condition reports. Although Professor Palijczuks’ efforts in 1980 were critical to the collection’s lifespan, efforts in conserving the collection’s condition ended abruptly again, lying dormant once more until former Art History Professor Julie Badiee picked it back up in 1984. Professor Badiee’s efforts ensured the collection’s storage was relatively stable and created open accessibility to the student population through 2004 with public catalogs.

Today, McDaniel College is a liberal arts institution with a small population of 1,762 undergraduate students, and the Art History Program gets smaller each year. Naturally, the population of students interested in archives and cultural heritage is following this downward curve; because Art History is now only a minor at the college, a very small population of students pursue this path of study. However, the changing direction of the college has heightened my interest in archives and special collections. Ms. Coddington is McDaniel Colleges’ only archivist, and her position is part-time. Given these factors, I remain concerned that legacy materials will be unable to receive their necessary care in the hands of only one person.

Being entrusted with an at-risk collection ultimately provided me with a deeper understanding of historical creative methods. Process and product both make these pieces special, but they were not necessarily made to last the thousands of years we wish they would.

Being entrusted with an at-risk collection ultimately provided me with a deeper understanding of historical creative methods. Process and product both make these pieces special, but they were not necessarily made to last the thousands of years we wish they would. The natural, chemical deterioration of the objects brings interdisciplinary findings like chemistry, psychology, and anthropology to a field I had previously believed to be exclusive to art history. Handling aging materials of bronze, terracotta, ceramics, wood, and natural animal materials provided a wide range of examples of art styles and deterioration processes from delamination, discoloration, patina, etc.

My investigation of the Myers Collection occurred roughly sixty years after it was gifted to the college and about forty years since its last appraisal. Ms. Coddington’s predecessors had used various labeling systems to develop a record of the collection and to write exhibition catalogs and pamphlets. In my own research, I learned to read and understand many unfamiliar types of documentation (e.g., handwritten index cards that were scribed over, undated taped labels, labels written directly on objects, catalog numbers, Sotheby’s numbering, and various independent digital records) as well as the more contemporary use of sites like ArchivesSpace: an archive management database. All of this work was useful to me. Sifting through somewhat chaotic and outdated recording methods developed my problem solving and analysis skills and learning contemporary methods of record management have provided me with modern processing and technology skills— vital aspects of the working world I hope to join.

During the first few months of my time with the Myers Collection I was coming into the office and handling the objects up close and personal (Fig 2). This time was spent giving every single item an individual label, surveying its physical condition and the box it lived in, and recording the data into spreadsheets. This daily interaction with the artifacts was where I found myself reflecting on my place in this historical journey. I realized the fate of the stories residing in these objects now rested to some degree on my shoulders.

Image of office space that includes a number of framed photographs hanging on walls as well as a document camera focused on a desk.

Figure 2: Daily workspace during physical surveying.

After condition reports wrapped up, it was time to develop the finding aid. ArchivesSpace was intimidating; its abilities were vast, and the options overwhelmed me. However, with the help of my mentor, Ms. Coddington, I have been able to build a clear, concise finding aid for this collection that I feel very proud of. Replacing aged labels and boxes are great victories, but the neatly compiled systematic accessibility of the collection makes my hours of work feel whole.

Now, I am also developing an understanding of what it takes to run the show: funding. While writing my preservation plan, I have been analyzing our current boxes’ condition and fill status to determine the safety of each one based on physical quality and whether the boxes and packing materials are archival grade (Fig. 3).

Hammermill storage box filled with bubble-wrapped objects

Figure 3: An object is safely packed into the box on the left, while a variety of ushabti are less carefully stored in a lidless Hammermill paper box on the right.

Furthermore, I have been researching the implications of storing different medias in the same container, as many of our boxes currently are, and decided our objects need reorganized/separated. Unfortunately, the materials our treasures deserve are very expensive, and the McDaniel Archives has a strict budget. With funding being critical to increasing the lifespan of our objects, I hope that my preservation plan will provide the Archives with plan for financial support to continue caring for our timeless collections.

A hands-on experience in McDaniel College’s Archives has been one of a kind. Not only have I been introduced to the archival experience; I have begun to understand the circulation, processing, security, and collaboration that goes on behind the scenes.

A hands-on experience in McDaniel College’s Archives has been one of a kind. Not only have I been introduced to the archival experience; I have begun to understand the circulation, processing, security, and collaboration that goes on behind the scenes. Reprocessing one of our many collections has been helpful for the Archives and the collection itself. Student involvement in archives and special collections aids in dispersing time amongst multiple projects while providing a well-rounded internship experience. A collection can get the attention it deserves, and the professional archivists can take care of duties that are outside of student’s capabilities. These experiences have shifted my outlook on life and my career, and with a better understanding of archival culture, I have found myself considering career goals intertwined with archival studies. Overall, I am excited for what future steps this internship has prepared me for. 

Photograph Citations:

Figure 1. Preview of Winter W. Myers Collection: “Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs”, “Teal Faience Ushabti”, “Zuni Water Pot”, and “Native American Striped Moccasins” Photo by author, October 27, 2023. Winter W. Myers Collection, McDaniel College Archives.

Figure 2. Office Space, Photo by author,August 31 2023. Author’s personal collection.

Figure 3. Photograph of Collection Boxes Photo by author, February 29th, 2024. Author’s personal collection.

 Zoe Shelby is a third-year student at McDaniel College pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio Art with concentrations in Art History and Religious Studies. She has been a practicing artist for ten years and strives to complete a Master of Science in either Art Conservation or Library Sciences with a focus on either books and paper, paintings, or archivism.

  1. Editorial note: We acknowledge that collections assembled in this manner often indicate materials with complex, obscured, and even extractive provenance. For some institutional conversations about provenance, see:

    Aton, Francesa. “How the Met and Other Major US Museums Are Approaching Provenance Research.” ARTnews, February 28, 2024. 
    Cherry, Callie, and Elizabeth Campbell. “When a University Library Discovers Problematic Provenance.” Center for Art Collection Ethics (University of Denver), September 15, 2021. 
    Lessing, Lauren. “Problems in Provenance Research.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 19, no. 2 (2000): 49–51.
    Punzalan, Ricardo L. “Archival Diasporas: A Framework for Understanding the Complexities and Challenges of Dispersed Photographic Collections.” American Archivist 77, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2014): 326–349. ↩︎