ACTIVE ARCHIVE: a conversation with Heather South

This interview first appeared in the BMCM+AC exhibition catalog ACTIVE ARCHIVE: Martha McDonald (2018). Click here to learn more about the exhibition and the BMCM+AC ACTIVE ARCHIVE Initiative.

What is the difference between an archive and a collection?

The term archive refers to place: It could be the building, the organization, the room, etc. where collections are stored. The word can also be used as a verb to mean the transfer, preservation, and access of documentary materials. Collection describes the actual physical material that is housed in an archive. A collection is a group of materials with a unifying characteristic, such as the organization that generated the documents or the person who saved the items. Depending on the contents, a collection can be titled as a collection, papers, manuscripts, or records. So, the Western Regional Archives (place), archives (action) collections (archival unit) such as the Black Mountain College Papers (actual collection title).   

As the lead archivist for the Western Regional Archives (WRA), what do you do?

A lot goes into running the WRA. I am a historian (and sometimes fortune teller) trying to identify important materials that help tell the story of the region, and I am a negotiator trying to convince a person or group to donate their materials to the archives. I can be a mover working to lug boxes into the archives, then become an organizer and secretary attempting to note what is here and figure out the best way to arrange it. I am a mentor and educator explaining the basics of archival principles to interns and volunteers as they assist in arranging collections and creating finding aids. I am a clerk entering data for our online catalog and behind the scenes databases. I am a supervisor of the search room, working with patrons on their queries, and a researcher for those unable to travel here who send questions by email. I am a preservationist making sure the stacks are kept at the proper environment levels and remain clean and secure, and I am a consultant to others on those standards. I am a tour guide for groups and classes interested in archives or local history, and I am a marketer for the archives and collections through social media and press releases. I help curate exhibitions, collaborating with other museums and archives in the region, and perform still a host of other duties. To summarize, as the lead archivist, I am responsible for gathering, preserving, and making available archival materials—held by the State Archives of North Carolina’s western branch—that document the historical, cultural, and natural heritage of Western North Carolina.

Can you give us a brief overview of how the State of North Carolina came to have a wide array of Black Mountain College materials? What is the scope of this BMC archive?

The archiving of some Black Mountain College materials started shortly after the school closed. When a college becomes defunct, the state archives assumes the role of registrar so that students still have access to transcripts. The State Archives of North Carolina received the administrative records of the school from Charles Olson in the mid-1960s.

Then, in 1972, the State Art Museum began researching BMC for an exhibition. They interviewed former faculty and students and gathered research materials, photographs, slides, and even original items like class notes. Since the art museum is also a state agency, their Black Mountain College Research Project materials ultimately came to the state archives. The grad student who worked on the exhibition, Mary Emma Harris, made so many connections in the process that people kept sending her materials long after that research had ended. Since no one was actively collecting at the time, she created her own nonprofit, the Black Mountain College Project. She donated these project materials to the WRA in 2012.  

Collections have also been donated directly to the state archives by former BMC students and faculty or their families. In this way, our archive of BMC materials continues to expand, as more papers come to light or researchers donate interviews or copies of their research.

This simplified description might make the collections seem small, but we have more than 350 cubic feet and nearly 600 boxes of BMC materials at the Western Regional Archives. We are less than five miles from the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, so their collection of art and primary materials as well as their sizable reference library are just a short ride away, making them an amazing destination for BMC scholars.

Who uses the WRA’s Black Mountain College collections?

Most of our patrons are students working on thesis projects or curators working on upcoming exhibitions. But, we are starting to have more student artists use the archives thanks to professors assigning small research projects. I am hopeful that projects and works like Martha McDonald’s will help more artists see the archives as a source of inspiration.

How did you work with Martha McDonald on her Active Archive project?

It all started with a conversation. After BMCM+AC reached out with the basic idea of the project, Martha visited the archives to do a little investigating and look at the materials with a broad stroke. While there, we talked about areas she wanted to know more about so that I could help pull specific materials. The proper term for this type of interaction is a reference interview, but I like to call it a researcher jam session—since, really, it is a collaborative dialogue. Martha/McDonald would give me an area of interest, and I’d use my knowledge of the materials to suggest a collection she should look into. Once she had seen the scope of materials, her focus evolved and we worked via email, making wish-to-see lists for her next visits. We work with all our patrons in the same manner, just with different end results. Most of the time, the outcome is in the form of a family tree, an article or academic paper, or exhibition text; with Martha, her work here helped to shape the ideas for an exhibition and a performance (a first for me, but I hope certainly not the last).         

We know that interest in Black Mountain College has increased dramatically in the last 10 years or so. Can you speculate about why this is and what role archives and collections play in this process?

I think that earlier scholarship focused on the famous people and more recognizable features of Black Mountain College. Now, as more of the story is revealed, it sheds light on features that resonate for different areas of interest. For a long time, Black Mountain College was viewed only for its art, literature, and music. Today, more is being uncovered about the renowned mathematicians and scientists who taught there, too. In fact, researchers are looking at Black Mountain College from so many more angles, like the farm, fashion, philosophy, environment, impact of WWII, etc. As more collections on more topics are made available, more scholarship can happen—articles, exhibitions—which generates more interest, and so on. Also, I think the way in which we as a society study history is broadening. Different perspectives are illuminating the complexity of the college and making it more intriguing and fascinating.    

I also think that having a centralized network of resources available for research is a contributing factor to the increase in popularity. By bringing the state archive collections back home, so to speak, researchers now have access to Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center Collections, The John Andrew Rice Papers at Appalachian State University, the Western Regional Archives, and others.

What does the term “Active Archive” suggest to you?

Archives are vibrant places with lots of layers, yet most people hear archive and instantly think old, musty, and boring. “Active Archive” creates a more engaging experience to reach a wider audience and eliminate these old-fashioned notions. Performance pieces, using Flickr to chronicle research, touchscreens in exhibitions, computer games—all these dynamic elements are drawing from information in archives and making the past active and interactive. Archives aren’t sedentary places where old pieces of paper languish in boxes: They are kinetic, lively places of discussion and interaction.

Heather South is Lead Archivist of the Western Regional Archives, Department of Cultural Resources, State of North Carolina. The Western Regional Archives (WRA) collects, preserves, and makes available for public use historical and evidential materials relating to western North Carolina. Their collection of Black Mountain College related materials is an invaluable resource for BMC researchers.