The Formation of the Mount Holyoke Missionaries Collection: Race, Redemption, and the Early Archive
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What is an archive? Is it a place? An object or objects organized into collections? A mentality? How have the creators of archives determined what should be archived, and what ideas about history have their decisions preserved? My research centers these questions in a study of the creation, over time, of the Mount Holyoke Missionaries Collection, with its holdings related to the missionary work of alumnae from 1841 to the present. In the early years of Mount Holyoke’s history as a Female Seminary, its founders and teachers sought to disseminate Protestant values and create an alumnae body of pious teachers, mothers, and in time, missionaries. Its early archive—represented in published works, financial records, and objects sent to Mount Holyoke from missionary fields—produced histories centered on Christian action and salvation blended with colonial discourses of race and civilization that venerated missionaries’ role in saving and civilizing non-Christian peoples. At the turn of the century, once Mount Holyoke had become a college and moved to adopt more rigorous academic standards and empirical research practices, both its historical consciousness and its archive shifted. Librarians, students, and teachers reinterpreted archives as vital for understanding the human race and bringing about societal improvement. While this approach was more empirical, it reflected the religious mindset of previous generations as well as the Social Darwinism of the day. The Missionaries Collection grew to include more documents reflective of missionaries’ everyday life, such as missionary publications and newspaper articles. In doing so, it reproduced racist discourses and continued to venerate Christianity as a sign of racial and social progress. This project contextualizes the archive as a historical phenomenon that has been constructed, reinterpreted, and redesigned over time. The Mount Holyoke Missionaries Collection is a prime example of an archival collection reflecting the distinct images of its creators’ and archivists’ historical consciousness over its nearly two centuries of existence.