We have been asked on many occasions: “So, what is it that you actually do?”
As designated “Church history specialists,” we are basically volunteer, unpaid full-time employees of the Church History Department (CHD) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The fundamental task of the CHD is to collect, preserve, and curate historical documents and artifacts relating to the history of the Church. The seven senior missionaries assigned to the Matthew Cowley Pacific Church History Centre work under the direction of the CHD, with responsibility for collecting, preserving, and curating historical items relating to the history of the Church in the South Pacific.
The endeavor involves three major stages.
The first entails acquisition. We receive a significant number of donations passively, meaning that the donor comes to us with something they wish to give to the CHD. Often these are journals, photographs, or interesting objects that had belonged to a grandparent or great-grandparent who served a mission in New Zealand. Usually the items have been in the family for years, but have reached the point at which younger generations are no longer interested in keeping them, either because they no longer see value in them, or because they understand that the items may be valuable to more than just their own family. In the latter case, the family may wish to donate items so that they can be professionally preserved and made available to other interested parties.
When an item or collection of items is donated, the CHD requires the donor to sign a legally binding document stating that they give up all rights to the artifact. If the item is digitizable (e.g. a journal, letter, or photograph) and the donor is interested, we can arrange for the original to be returned to the family once it is digitized. In most cases, however, the donor does not want the original back, but wants their own high-quality digital copy. When we receive a passive donation, we send a description and photo of each item to the CHD’s professional archivists in Salt Lake City, who then determine whether the CHD wants to officially acquire them.
In addition to passively accepting donations, we actively seek donations from individuals that we know have historically significant items or information. Our oral history project falls under this category: we ask potential donors if they would be willing to record their experiences on video and donate the results to the CHD. In most cases, these interviews are conducted and recorded face-to-face. Recently, however, due to travel restrictions and physical distancing requirements in the era of COVID-19, we have been experimenting with conducting virtual interviews via Zoom or similar software, with successful results.
Once the CHD has decided to acquire an item, we then consult with the preservation department, who determines how the item should be preserved. Sometimes, historically valuable items need to be “stabilized” to prevent further deterioration. This may involve removing corrosion from metal or freezing a textile to kill insect larvae. The MCPCHC has a part-time collection-care consultant who has been trained to perform such stabilization and preservation work on-site. She ultimately is responsible for the ongoing care of all the items in the archive.
Assets that can be digitized go through a different sort of preservation. Photos are digitized to strict standards; similar standards are set and followed when digitizing nondigital audio (e.g. cassette tapes) and nondigital video (e.g. VHS) items. Digital-born items—those that come to us already in a digital format—must go through virus scanning and, sometimes, enhancement to meet CHD standards.
After preservation, the items are then catalogued in the official CHD catalog by professionals in Salt Lake City. This catalog is open to the public and is available for researchers worldwide.
Neither Nancy nor Michael does any of the specific work we’ve just described. However, Michael has helped staff members in the three CHD divisions (acquisition, preservation and cataloging) understand that they are part of an integrated, end-to-end process. He developed process-flow diagrams highlighting the handoffs from one division to the next, and has helped each team define the requirements for moving a donation from one stage to the next. He also enhanced the ability to keep track of where each donation is within the process.
In addition to providing analysis to CHD staff members both here in New Zealand and in Salt Lake, Michael has been the sys-admin and help desk for the rest of the local staff, most of whom are not computer savvy. When they get stuck or cannot figure out how to do something, they seek his help.
Just before New Zealand went into lockdown in March, Michael moved workstations and monitors from the MCPCHC to our individual missionary flats. He set up the equipment and helped install VPN software so the seven of us full-time Church History missionaries could work as if we were in the office. He had to teach most of us how to use virtual meeting software so we could maintain contact with our counterparts in SLC—and with each other. And when the lockdown was over, he had to move all the equipment back to the office, reconnect it, and make sure everything worked as expected.
In addition to supporting all the computer equipment in the office, Michael also is responsible for ensuring that all the interactive equipment in the museum functions properly. He has become pretty adept at troubleshooting, but is glad there is a dedicated staff in SLC that he can contact if something goes beyond his expertise.
Finally, Michael has had to learn how to support all the equipment in our theatre so that anyone can project from a DVD, USB flash drive, the Internet, or the digital content management system (CMS) currently installed in the theatre. He was slightly appalled to learn that the content in the CMS is fixed and not curatable, meaning that we cannot make any changes to it at all. The content is in desperate need of curation, so Michael has been working with the designers and providers to upgrade the equipment so that we can offer visitors a better experience in our theatre.
Nancy’s primary responsibility is to manage the daily operation of the museum. Her first duty each morning is to ensure that the museum is clean. A maintenance crew vacuums the space three times a week, but Nancy is the one who wipes fingerprints, smudges, and dust from all surfaces that visitors are likely to touch. She tidies the graduation gowns hanging in vintage lockers from the Church College of New Zealand (visitors like to try these on and take selfies). She checks the CCNZ display for inappropriate messages visitors may have added to the vintage chalkboard, and removes the candy wrappers she sometimes finds wedged into crevices. (Food is strictly forbidden anywhere in the building except the lunch room, which is as far from the museum and archive as possible to avoid attracting insects and rodents that might damage the artifacts. Checking the mousetraps, swatting crickets, and reporting any evidence of other pests is another of Nancy’s daily duties.) Once the museum has been sanitized—a process that she has taken very seriously in the wake of COVID-19—Nancy pushes the wall switch that powers up the museum’s electronic equipment and turns on the dramatic lighting. Then she has to check each interactive display to ensure that it’s working properly, and test the volume levels on all audio speakers so that the recording of Maori chanting in one room doesn’t interfere with a story told by Thomas S. Monson in the next. Michael sometimes helps with the cleaning and often has to reset some of the notoriously balky interactives so that everything is ready when the museum doors automatically open at 10 a.m.
Another of Nancy’s important managerial responsibilities is keeping the museum staffed. We have about two dozen volunteer docents who fill ten three-hour shifts each week. Although Nancy has set up a regular weekly schedule that runs fairly smoothly, inevitably someone will ask to be excused at the last minute because they’re sick or their car won’t start, so Nancy frequently sits at the reception desk or leads tours herself. She tries to ensure not only that two docents are on duty whenever the museum is open, but also that each volunteer feels confident as a museum guide. Most of our volunteers are retirees. Some have disabilities. A few are young adults awaiting full-time missionary assignments. All of them are wonderful people with unique personalities, and Nancy has really enjoyed becoming acquainted with them. She spends a fair amount of time each week talking or texting with them, reminding them of schedule changes, checking on their health, and sharing funny stories or spiritual experiences. Even though she is an American who still has much to learn about local history and customs, the volunteers have welcomed her warmly and make her feel almost like whanau (the lovely Maori term for extended family).
So these are our regular responsibilities for the Matthew Cowley Pacific Church History Centre. Most of them could not be continued during the 68 days the Centre was closed while New Zealand struggled to contain COVID-19, yet both of us had plenty to do while working at home. Find out what kept us busy in our next post.