Wednesday, March 4, 2020

A Conversation with Hunter Foster

Hunter Foster, archival assistant for conservation

Hunter Foster, archival assistant for conservation, has long loved art and history. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Fiber and Material Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Foster is detail-oriented and spends hours repairing and preserving historical materials, including books and maps. He says he is interested in keeping and maintaining items that are part of our state’s collective memory and identity. Foster repairs material for public use, while maintaining the original appearance. He recently took time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions.

Q: What’s your job title, and how long have you worked at the Arkansas State Archives?
A: I started as the archival assistant for conservation at the Arkansas State Archives in May 2019.

Q: What do you do on a typical day at the Arkansas State Archives?
A: Although my tasks at the Arkansas State Archives vary somewhat daily, I am primarily responsible for the conservation treatments and housing of objects in our collections. I typically work with our Curator Julienne Crawford and Archivist Stephanie Carter to examine items in need for conservation and determine the most appropriate plan for treatment. Treatments include, but are not limited to, a combination of surface-cleaning documents, mending tears, remediating mold, flattening rolled or folded maps and documents and making custom boxes, mats and enclosures for items. I also am responsible for our environmental monitoring system, which records data about the indoor environmental conditions at the ASA so that we can ensure that our collections are kept in the ideal conditions for long-term storage and preservation.

Q: How did you become interested in Arkansas history or working at the Arkansas State Archives?
A: My training is in fine art and textiles, but as an Arkansan, I have long been deeply interested in the stories and traditions of the place where I am from. I love food history and collect community cookbooks from around the state. The Arkansas State Archives has many interesting historical cookbooks, as well as, information and photographs regarding regional foodways, which has been a treat to uncover.  So far, my some of my favorite food-related discoveries have been pamphlets produced in the early 20th century that promote Arkansas agriculture, including statistics and figures about the varieties and quantities of crops grown in the state. The pamphlets were distributed to encourage people to move to Arkansas, buy land and farm.

A: I have enjoyed learning a lot about maps during my work at the Arkansas State Archives. Treating and rehousing a large variety of maps, including topographical maps, property ownership maps, highway department maps and travelers' maps, has sparked within me an unexpected curiosity about places and towns in Arkansas. Previously, I was unfamiliar with much of these places’ histories. I have found historical maps to be an interesting way to learn about the changes of a specific place over time. I notice changes while working on a large collection of maps as places evolve over time. Although I don’t usually study one place in depth, I have had places to spark my interest, just based on their names. For example, Patmos in Hempstead County is named after the Greek Island that the Book of Revelations was written on. The town was created during the construction of the Louisiana and Arkansas Railway during the early 20th century. The last U.S. Census reported a population of only 64 for Patmos. I like finding all the names of towns and cemeteries, etc., with biblical references.

Q: Why do you think the Arkansas State Archives is important for Arkansans?
A: In addition to the mammoth role the Arkansas State Archives performs in preserving Arkansas’s cultural heritage, I think we provide more resources than people might realize. Before starting my work here, I certainly didn’t know how much historical research material was available to anyone who is interested. Beyond its deep well of information useful to genealogists and community historians, the Arkansas State Archives provides support to academic researchers, educators and legislators. We also preserve a myriad of newspapers and records through microfilm and digitization, produce lectures, workshops and events for the public, offer some research services and organize and create exhibitions that travel across the state.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
A: Some of the most rewarding moments of working at the archives have been the opportunities I’ve had to meet with patrons, answer questions and offer ideas about accessible solutions to preserving and protecting items in their own personal collections or family artifacts. I love hearing about personal relationships people have with objects that have been in their families for generations. I’m also constantly learning about new materials and historical production methods, which is very gratifying. 

Q: How do you see archiving evolving in the future?
A: I think a challenge in the future will be how to keep up with preservation methods for the continually evolving and changing ways in which information is digitally created and stored. I think the ways the public accesses and interacts with the Arkansas State Archives also will change in exciting ways as more and more information becomes digitized and made available online. 

Q: What do you wish people knew about Archives?
A: I wish people knew how accessible we are, and that we are here for them. The cultural heritage of the state belongs to the people of Arkansas. They can come here to see it and use it for free.