Getting to Know the Collector: Processing the Cullinane Archive Collection

Hello, my name is Stephanie, and for the next three months I am the project cataloguer for the Cullinane Archive Collection (CAC) at ITMA. Time flies and I can’t believe it’s only been 3 weeks since I started, so much has happened already!

Cullinane coll
CAC Accrual No. 1. Ready for cataloguing.

For those of you who are not familiar with the collection, you can read about Dr John Cullinane and his donation to ITMA here. Many people are excited about my appointment to this job (trust me – I am too!), most people ask me: What do you actually do there all day long? I thought it would be a good idea to share some of the experiences I’m having here at ITMA, and explain a bit about my role as a project cataloguer and the tasks involved with working on the CAC. But let me start from the beginning.

The very first day I was given an in-depth tour of the ITMA premises – I had been in ITMA before for different personal research projects, so was already familiar (and in love with!) the building and especially with all the media which has been made available to the public. It was nice to see “behind-the-scenes” and see how, and where ITMA’s wonderful treasures (records, books, CD’s etc.) are stored. On my first day I also had a chance to get myself acquainted with what John Cullinane had already donated to ITMA, and I braced myself for the collection of his 4th accrual (by the way – accrual was a new word for my vocabulary… I am learning new things every day!).

Stephanie's ITMA Office

The next morning, battling the rain, Maeve Gebruers, head archivist at ITMA, and myself, headed down to Cork to meet with John in his personal office at the Music Department at University College Cork. I hadn’t seen John in a few years, so it was good to meet again, especially to meet him in his personal research haven, where he has stored his collection for many decades. Of course, stories were shared, photographs and hand-embroidered sashes shown, and, as a passionate dance lover, everywhere I looked I found things of interest that made my dance-researcher heart beat that little bit faster. After carrying 12 big boxes full of material down several flights of stairs, and listening to stories about John’s life as a marine biologist over a shared meal afterwards, it was time to tackle the long journey back to Dublin – me with a very humble heart, as John had gifted me a few goodies along with a set of his published books, which are now decorating my new office and are being referenced regularly as I look up dates and names while cataloguing his collection.

John Cullinane and Stephanie SK Marbach, Music Department, UCC

The following day my actual work began. My background lies in primary school teaching and dance research, but I’ve always made a point of complementing my main careers with different small jobs. But like any job, getting familiar with new tasks (and computer systems) takes a bit of time. I work manually, handling the different donated items, while describing and cataloguing them on the computer. The materials are then placed in archival folders and boxes and stored in a specific location at ITMA. All this is documented in a digital file, so that once the collection is made available to the public, the location of specific items of interest can be tracked and brought to the researcher for viewing.

Archival tools and research resources for processing the CAC

For the first part of this process, I got a loan of – would you believe – clay crafting tools from Maeve. These I used to flatten any creases in paper documents and to carefully remove staples. All metal needs to be removed because of the damage that rust can cause to documents. Plastic folders also need to be removed and replaced by either thin plastic paperclips or Mylar – an inert plastic used by archives (another new word for my vocabulary!) Post-its are removed from the original document and stuck on thin tissue-paper, the glue of the post-it can also cause damage to pages in the long run. All these steps ensure the long-term preservation of documents.

I tackle the collection binder by binder – open it up, see what’s inside, clear the documents of unnecessary plastic and metal, sort through them and place them neatly into archival folders, thereby reducing the overall volume and ensuring long-term preservation. This whole process can take quite a significant amount of time, but it’s very rewarding to see the re-housed collection in labelled folders in archival boxes.

Processing the CAC, before and after!

Handling these old documents is not only a very interesting task, it is also a privilege. It offers me an insight into the mind of a passionate collector of dance history. I come across things I myself have collected over the years, but also things I would never have thought of collecting, so I am learning all the time. I see and understand the importance of the different items with regards to the preservation of an art form that is so important for this country, and yet sometimes I feel it’s not validated enough (but don’t worry, I won’t go down that road now…). What I love most about the process, and is something that some people may perhaps find trivial, but I cherish tremendously, are John Cullinane’s personal notes.

John spends many months describing his collection for ITMA before their transfer to No. 73 Merrion Square. In these Word documents, he offers a lot of additional information to the items he has donated. It ranges from factual to humorous, very often offering more information on a specific date, meeting, dancer, competition etc., and is often annotated with small personal anecdotes about his relationship to the item or any similar context. Very often I find myself laughing out loud – his humorous way of explaining or describing situations is a very valuable insight into his personality, his way of thinking and researching, and his way of seeing things. I very much appreciate this insight into the man behind this collection.

A recurring theme in these personal notes is his frustration with undated documents. Providing each item with a date is such an important thing in any field relating to history. I can literally sense John’s frustration of having undated documents through the notes attached to material! Now this is something we can all learn from – next time we write a story, a post, or a letter: always write down a date!

No date! Post-its from the CAC

While handling the material – and if my office-roomie isn’t around – I listen to interviews with John Cullinane, and conducted by him with other dancers. By doing this, I hope to get a better sense of the man and his way of thinking. This will improve my understanding of the material and inform how best to preserve his collection for the benefit of future users.

It is certainly not an easy task, especially as I become more and more aware of the magnitude of his work, and the impact it has had across several continents. It is my hope that in making this collection accessible that people will realise and truly understand the great work that John Cullinane has achieved in documenting the origins of Irish dance and its development over the years to where it is now. There is so much more to Irish step dance than the simple glitz and world cup… and, who knows, perhaps it might also even inspire people to document their own journey and leave a mark on the wonderful world of Irish dance history.

Next month I’ll be telling you about a new challenge I’ve been currently facing, and I hope to let you look over my shoulder as I work. Until then – see you soon, take care, and stay safe!

by Stephanie SK Marbach, September 2022

The Cullinane Archive Collection will be made available to the the public when all transfers and processing is complete.

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