When former Research and Collections Assistant Director and Curator of Ichthyology Dr. Robert Daniels retired in late 2012, he took with him over 30 years of specialist knowledge of the Museum’s fish collection, as well as key information about the Museum’s history and administrative activities. While it’s impossible to capture all of a person’s institutional knowledge, an ongoing oral history project aims to record the experiences of longtime staff members to compile a history of the State Museum. Museum anthropologists John Pasquini and Ralph Rataul conceived the research project in April 2006. – The untimely 2002 death of Dr. Robert Funk, who served as State Archaeologist from 1973 to 1993, had left a void in their professional lives. They both considered Funk “a great resource and a great friend” and knew he had possessed “a wealth of tales” about his time working at the Museum that had reflected the broader history of the institution.
This loss made Pasquini and Rataul realize there was a need to capture and preserve the first-person accounts, stories shared among colleagues, and personal remembrances that shape an individual’s institutional memory. “Some of this information can and does live on in the written and oral traditions that surround us everyday as friends and co-workers reminisce about the individuals in question, but that information is second-hand and is often altered through these recollections and time,” says Pasquini, co-director of the archaeology lab in the Cultural Resources Survey Program. “The Oral History Project collects these memories first-hand and records them for future generations.” So far, Pasquini and Rataul, a research and collections technician for Anthropology, have interviewed more than a dozen longtime employees and former NYSM staff members.
During the recorded interviews, topics range from the general background of the staff members and how they came to work at the Museum to details about how they did their job, who they reported to, what accomplishments they are most proud of, and how the Museum operated. Oral histories have the advantage of being from the “insider’s perspective,” says Rataul, who points out that neither he nor Pasquini or the majority of the current staff were Museum employees at the time many of the recalled events took place. “These insider perspectives, covering the last half century, provide a very real conception of coping and thriving during periods of massive facility and management change,” says Rataul. “Potential blueprints for how we, the current staff, might promote and manage pending changes within our time at this institution can be found in these interviews.” A key area of interest is past relocations of the collections, and many of the Museum’s senior staff participated in the last major move in the 1970s, when the NYSM relocated from the State Education Building to the Cultural Education Center. “We suspect the lessons learned during that effort would be applicable to any future relocation of the Research and Collections department,” say Pasquini and Rataul. The oral history initiative is one of several internally funded Research and Collections projects. Pasquini and Rataul were granted a percentage of time from their regular positions to work on this additional project.