Meet the Museum Archivists

Posted on December 10, 2020

The University of Pretoria Museums manage two archives, which contain primary historical records related to their collections. The Mapungubwe Archive and the UP Museum Archive, which is in the process being established in order to support the curation, conservation, engagement and research agenda of the museums. Our two archivists, Helma Steenkamp and Michelle de la Harpe are introduced this month in the form of a question and answer session about their roles and responsibilities. They also reflect on some personal insights into their personalities so that our supporters see those who are dedicated to caring for and preserving our valuable institutional documents and photographs. 

 

Interview with Helma Steenkamp: Archivist for the Mapungubwe Archive

Tell us briefly about where you come from, your background and upbringing? My parents are both from the Western Cape Province (West Coast) and I was born in Saldanha. We moved to the old Transvaal when I was 5 years old, because my father was a policeman. We moved a few times during my childhood, but eventually settled in Sabie, Mpumalanga, where I completed my last 4 years of high school.  I have an older brother, Leon, 4 years older than me, who lives in Australia.

Where and what did you study and why did you choose that field? I studied BComm Marketing Management at the University of Pretoria and completed my Honors degree in 2003. It really was a last minute decision to study, but my career went into a completely different direction when I began working at the UP Museums as an Assistant Conservator in 2013 and have now moved into Archive preservation.

What do you do in the archive day to day - what is your responsibility? I  manage and oversee the Mapungubwe Archive. For the past few years, we have been engaged in the US Ambassadors Cultural Preservation Programme (AFCP) in association with the US Embassy in Pretoria and feel privileged to be part of this global preservation programme. My responsibilities also include to receive, accommodate and assist researchers, many local and some international, that access the Archive. A majority of the time is spent on the preservation of historical photographic records, overseeing the maintenance, care, environmental control and upkeep of the archive facility, as well as general administration duties.

What do you find fascinating about the archival world? Somehow there is always something “new” to discover, information that you perhaps have overlooked previously or not paid much attention to. This can be a link to making sense of other archival records.

How is your experience working on the archive during Lockdown? It has been difficult working remotely on the archive from home, but the AFCP project had to continue and adequate space to work on photographic preservation was an issue. In working with archives, one needs to have few disturbances. This was challenging with children and noise at home, especially having online meetings. Preservation, however, continued to keep momentum.

What do you enjoy beyond the work environment? I enjoy doing anything creative… arts and crafts, cross stitch, gardening. I would have loved to be an artist or an interior decorator. I adore anything with loads of  colour, florals and leaves. I also enjoy reading fiction and building jigsaw puzzles. For exercise, I like doing yoga. Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to design the interior of the Mapungubwe Archive and make recommendations to ensure it looks modern and fresh- not all archivists have that opportunity.

Tell us something that we do not know about you. I hate jogging. Science fiction bores me to death – I have not seen one Star Wars movie, ever. Luckily archives don't require jogging or science fiction - but history.

Who has inspired you and driven you to working in the archive sector and why? I think the archives chose me and my preservation journey within the museums provided immense opportunities. So far, it has been an enriching path that I have been walking at UP ever since.

What are your future aspirations for the archives? That the Mapungubwe Archive will be fully utilised by researchers and serve as a valuable source of information, context and insight to everyone that finds it interesting and compelling, be it academics, students, school children or the public in general. The Mapungubwe Archive is a wealth of untapped information and I am proud to have been part of the archive’s journey and its development.

 

Interview with Michelle de la Harpe: Archivist for the UP Museums

Tell us a briefly about where you come from, your background and upbringing? I was born in a little town called Fochville. Our family moved to Kwa-Zulu Natal and lived in Richards Bay for most of my primary school years, before moving back to Gauteng to Benoni, where my parents still reside. I matriculated at Hoërskool Kempton Park in 2013 and recently married Ben Botha, but also retained my family surname as well.

Where and what did you study and why did you choose that field? I studied Heritage and Cultural Tourism at the University of Pretoria. In the 9th grade, my history teacher told me about this course at university, and I chose my high school subjects based on that. I have always enjoyed history as a subject and loved to visit historical museums. My parents would tell you that I would always beg to visit nearby museums on our family trips. It really was a no-brainer to work in the field. I only discovered archival sciences as a career path at university. 

What do you do in the archive day to day - what is your responsibility? I first worked in Special Collections in the Department of Library Services and then moved into the UP Museums to be a researcher for the Mapungubwe Preservation Project funded by the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) in association with the US Embassy. My priority was mainly the preservation of documents and maps. This involves me securing historical documents and maps in an environment ideal for preservation. I need to mitigate possible risks to the archival collections, so part of my job is to ensure that the environment has the right conditions, is dust- and pest-free, and that historical manuscripts are safely tucked in an acid-free environment.

What do you find fascinating about the archival world? I always thought I was just an over-sentimental child with a love for history and museums. Turns out, there is a whole field of people who are like me. People who love organization, feel passionate about different histories, and want to preserve it to the best of their abilities. With archivists I find it is a passion, much more than a career, that they are pursuing. 

How is your experience working on the archive during Lockdown? It was really tough in the beginning to figure out how physical preservation will work remotely from home. Until I realized that a big part of archives, like planning and developing finding aids can take place from home. I also realized that nothing beats working in a physical archival space and missed walking up to the beautiful Old Arts building to start work in the morning.

What do you enjoy beyond the work environment? My husband, Ben and I are avid tabletop gamers. Other than that, I love reading classic books and I also play the guitar.

Tell us something that we do not know about you. I write poetry in my free time and won a national poetry competition at university. 

Who has inspired you and driven you to working in the archive sector and why?  As a third year student at the University of Pretoria, I worked part-time for the Heritage Foundation’s shop located at the Voortrekker Monument on weekends. They have an archival facility located on the premises, and that was where I met the head archivist, Zabeth Botha - she is well established in her profession. She showed me the archive and what it is that she does and I immediately knew that this is what I would want to do. The organized spaces and working with historical documents and photographs daily made the career choice very appealing and I began volunteering at the Mapungubwe Archive soon after and also had an opportunity to work with old manuscripts in the UP’s special collections. 

What are your future aspirations for the archives? That the new UP Museums Archive becomes the country’s leading university museum archive and a well-known research archive on par with international standards. I would be part of that establishment’s growth and have an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution towards its future.

- Author Sian Tiley-Nel
Published by Nicole Hoffmann

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