Precious Preservation: A look at the Museum’s archives

By Henry White
August 2016

The collection of historical artifacts and documents in The West End Museum’s archives is one of the key sources for creating new exhibits and finding ways to teach Boston residents and visitors alike about the old neighborhood. The archives are a major part of the organization’s effort to keep the West End alive in the memories of Bostonians, old and new—as well as tourists—and honor those who lived here before the demolition of urban renewal in the late 1950s and early 60s.

FraniCollection_1963_Urban-Renewal-Sign

Urban renewal in progress, courtesy of photographer Charles Frani, 1963

Four years ago, James Campano, founder of The West End Museum, donated what would become the basis of the Museum’s archives. Since then the collection of newspaper articles, photos, and even memorabilia like old sports trophies, has grown slowly but steadily to fill 13 shelving units in a climate-controlled room. The shelves are divided into sections by topic, such as historic photographs and famous West Enders (like Leonard Nimoy, Ruth Roman and Buddy Clark).

In addition to objects donated by Campano, the estate of Hyman Rosenberg—a well-known former resident who was active in the West End House—gave the Museum 50 years worth of newspapers from or about the neighborhood. These and all donated materials are checked for condition, removing anything that could damage them in the long term (e.g., staples), and then categorized by subject matter and date, and stored in the climate-controlled room. Any materials that aren’t relevant to the West End are shared with other interested museums.

The Tasty in Scollay Square

The Tasty in Scollay Square

Museum Director Susan Hanson and volunteer Bob Sullivan head up the Museum’s archives committee, which consists of themselves and student interns. The committee is beginning the process of digitizing materials to ensure their eternal survival. Hanson, Sullivan and the interns meet one day a week and work on sorting, preserving and digitizing the collection.

Items in the archives are used by Museum staff to do research for new exhibits, or by journalists writing articles or books, and can be viewed by the public by appointment. There are numerous stories of former West Enders visiting to reminisce about old times as they look through the collection of photographs from their childhoods, point out who the young people in the images are, and laugh about old rumors of who was dating whom. Sullivan recalls a day when he found a rare photograph of the Boston Garden at its opening in 1925 with the Manger Hotel under construction in the background. One of the prized possessions is a collection of recorded oral histories dating back to the 1980s that feature original West Enders telling stories about the days before the old neighborhood disappeared.

Construction of the Elizabeth Peabody House c.1911 - 357 Charles Street

Construction of the Elizabeth Peabody House c.1911 – 357 Charles Street

The protection and maintenance of the archives is possible because of a generous donation from Pieter and Thomas Burgess. Pieter Burgess, along with Duane Lucia—the Museum’s director at the time—first created the archives by sorting and preserving for future generations the materials donated by Campano. The current archive committee aims to expand the collection to further sustain the history and culture of the West End. They encourage anyone with historic documents or artifacts to consider donating them. Potential donors can email archive@thewestendmuseum.org or call 617-723-2125.

As time marches steadily on, the all-volunteer staff at the Museum is eager to tell the story of the West End to younger generations, to preserve old memories and to create new ones with the current influx of residents. All are welcome to visit—admission is free—to contact the Museum and to connect with us on social media.