Before last Thursday I had some idea of how an archive might function. In my mind an archive functioned much like a museum of documents: a place to observe ancient written documents from behind a glass cover. Don’t get me wrong, museums can be exciting. But they’re also inaccessible. Preserved material culture can’t be engaged as in a discussion.
What surprised me about my visit to the McGovern Historical Center, and something I learned about archives in general, is that the material at an archive is meant to be engaged. We were free to carefully flip through and discover on our own (information was less presented than made available for exploration). Another thing that differentiates this archive from a museum is that important new interpretations and discoveries can happen at an archive. The archivists expect and encourage visitors to use and expand upon documents in the collection.
The McGovern Center holds a large collection from the Texas Medical Center documenting the intersection of public health with other areas of study including ethics, technology, and the practice of medicine. The archivist mentioned in passing that many documents from the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission are stored at the center. The commission studied the effects of radiation from the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan during World War 2.
I’ve always been interested in learning more about these bombings than the surface-level discussion provided in my high school history class. I followed up with the archivist, who referred me to a US doctor’s journal documenting his experiences interviewing radiation survivors. The supplementary material exposes important insights on ethics in medicine and institutional pressures that may limit conscientious behavior.
Overall I was very surprised by how engaged I was at the archive, which I found accessible and intriguing. I found the material very pertinent to my interests in ethics and medicine, expanding my resource list for their study.