One of the main projects that was undertaken by Rhythm! Discovery Center in 2020 was the completion of a project titled Notable 20th Century Percussion Composers Archives, which was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) as part of their Inspire program. This project covered the processing of collections relating to six major figures in 20th-century percussion music: John Cage, Elliot Carter, Clair Omar Musser, William Kraft, Harry Partch, and Paul Price. This article will give an overview of the project, explain a bit about the processes and priorities of sorting through archives, and explain how you can now access the end results of this project.
If you’ve played percussion (or had almost any hobby, for that matter) long enough, you know that things sometimes just seem to appear and accumulate like geological formations over the course of years. Whether you had to get a specific pair of mallets you used on a single performance, or you found a snare drum at a yard sale that you swore you’d restore one day, pretty much everything will have some sort of story attached to it, regardless of the strata it occupies on the shelves or in your memory. A major part of work within a museum or archive is managing this kind of accumulation and maintaining practices that shore up the knowledge of objects’ circumstances, their locations, and how they came to be there. Often times, the job of collection or archive management is more about building a framework to be able to find something the next time than it is about gathering more knowledge about what is immediately present, although that is certainly fun when required.
In the case of this chunk of archives, there was an organized storage scheme, but the exact contents of some of the collections needed to be assessed, organized, and prioritized for digitization and publication. To accomplish this work, PAS hired a project archivist, Alysha Zemanek, under the auspices of the IMLS funding. Much of the first phase of Alysha’s work was focused on processing the archival materials covered in the project, which included going over each item in the archive, purging unnecessary duplicates, and rehousing many of the objects in archival-quality boxes and coverings. The final stage of this project included identifying records to be digitized and creating documents known as “finding aids.” Finding aids are narrative explanations of the contents of a given collection, as opposed to exhaustive inventories at the item level. Their purpose of these aids is to guide future inquiry and research.
Among the six artists covered by this project, the sizes and contents are widely varied, with some containing a few important pieces and others containing many documents, the significance of which will be elucidated by the research they facilitate. On the larger end of things, the Clair Omar Musser and Paul Price collections include a number of documents related to their various projects. Musser’s materials, in particular, cover a wide array of documents related to many of the projects he undertook in his career, ranging from compositions to toy designs, while Price’s materials focus on programs and memorabilia from his career spanning the life of a few of his ensembles. On the smaller end is the John Cage collection, which includes a selection of his correspondence with B. Michael Williams. For most researchers, these collections will be just one stop of many in the course of a project, and are intended to provide materials that are not available anywhere else.
The end result of this project is the publication of six finding aids, a large group of digital assets, the latter of which is stored in Rhythm! Discovery Center’s online collection, and an updated apparatus for future archives management at the museum. You can access these finding aids and the corresponding digital assets by visiting pas.org/resources/research/pas-digital-archive. You can also learn more about a few of our recent projects, and follow a walkthrough of how to use the newly published resources by revisiting the R!DC session from PASIC 2020 at vimeo.com/478677584/139720117f.