BLOG: Lions and Tigers and Dusty Boxes, Oh My! Exploring an Untouched Archive at the Buenos Aires Ecoparque by Ashley Kerr
Attention! Summer is coming! Before you head off to undertake fabulous research trips, would you be willing to commit to writing a blog post or two when you return? Our readers and I would love to learn from your trials and errors in physical archives and libraries. Or perhaps you’ll be engaging in research from the comfort of your own home? We’d be grateful to hear how you accomplished this. Perhaps you’re an archivist, looking to attract more patrons? We’d love to hear about your holdings. Do you have another idea that’s maybe more about research in general than any particular repository? I’d love to hear about it, it just needs to focus on issues central to Latin Americanists, Caribbeanists, and scholars of the border. Please contact Dr. Gretchen Pierce at firstname.lastname@example.org or by using this Google Form.
Ashley Kerr is an Associate Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Idaho. Her first book, Sex, Skulls, and Citizens: Gender and Racial Science in Argentina, 1870-1910, was named the best book of 2020 by the Nineteenth Century section of LASA and was a PROSE award finalist. She is currently working on a manuscript that analyzes how the Buenos Aires Zoo and representations of its animal inhabitants were used to shape porteño society at the turn of the century, as well as how the animals and zoo visitors responded to those projects.1 As part of a year-long sabbatical, Ashley spent August-December 2022 doing archival research in Buenos Aires. Work done for this project has informed the following blog post in addition to the first two, which focused on the Archivo General de la Nación de Argentina and the Biblioteca Nacional.
Lions and Tigers and Dusty Boxes, Oh My! Exploring an Untouched Archive at the Buenos Aires Ecoparque
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to access an untouched archive, just stacks and stacks of dusty boxes filled with books and papers and with little to no organization? To be told “we have no idea what’s in here, but you’re welcome to look through it all. Just put it back when you’re done?” In the last few months, I was lucky enough to have this experience at the Ecoparque (Ecopark) in Buenos Aires, Argentina (see Figures 1 and 2).
Figure 1: Ecoparque from above (photo by author).
Figure 2: Lago Darwin, Ecoparque. The former Lion House is on the right (photo by author).
The Buenos Aires Zoo has passed through numerous states and owners since its founding in 1875. Originally dependent on the municipality, it passed into a private concession in 1991, and in 2016 transformed into an interactive “Ecoparque” focused on conservation, environmental education, and sustainable development under the direction of the Secretaría de Ambiente. The zoo has been frequently at the center of political battles, fights over animal rights, and accusations of mismanagement. After all these changes, it was very unclear to me if there was any sort of zoo archive remaining and, if there was, if I would be given permission to access it. My expectations were low, and I was largely resigned to spending my sabbatical finding photos and articles about the zoo in other archives. But hope springs eternal and I sent an email to the director of Ecoparque, Federico Iglesias. Two days later, I was shocked and thrilled to receive an email from María José (Majo) Micale, director of Patrimonio (Heritage) inviting me to visit the park and meet with her.
During our first meeting, Majo gave me an incredible tour that included climbing to the top of the Confitería del Águila (currently being restored) and donning hard hats to descend into the basement of the old Casa de Fieras (Lion House). When I asked about archival materials, Majo explained that many had been sold, stolen, and carelessly separated over the years, but that she had two rooms full of boxes. Many contained books, part of an ongoing project to track down, inventory, and clean and restore the former library. Majo had been working with conservators but the pandemic had interrupted the process. Other boxes contained administrative materials. Majo warned me that the materials were largely un-inventoried, unorganized, and in varying condition, but gave me gave me carte blanche to spend the next few months exploring.
I provided the Ecoparque’s legal team with my passport and proof of insurance and Majo set me up in a room right next to the zoo’s kitchens, where I could watch peacocks and Patagonian maras pass by as I sorted through the stacks (see Figures 3 and 4). She also provided me with gloves and facemasks, tea, and a space heater to keep me warm.
Figure 3: My workspace. The boxes in the foreground were those that had been previously inventoried. The boxes in the back and absolutely filling the room behind that door were my playground (photo by author).
Figure 4: one of my many research assistants (photo by author).
My plan was to focus primarily on the administrative materials, creating a personal inventory of what was there and taking photos of everything that seemed relevant to my project. As promised, the materials were in a terrible state. Letterbooks from the early 1900s were thrown in with plastic bagfuls of printouts from the 1980s and 1990s. Legal documents from the 1960s were next to receipts from the 1930s. Furthermore, many of the materials were water damaged, mildewed, faded, or otherwise destroyed. After sorting the materials, I honed in on the letterbooks, which contained much of the zoo’s official correspondence from the first two decades of the 20th century (see Figure 5). These included letters to animal dealers like Carl Hagenbeck, notes to the municipality begging for money, lists of employees, complaints about poor quality feed, daily reports, and so much more (see Figures 6 and 7). To maximize my time, I did not bother to read most documents carefully, but instead took photos of everything that might possibly be interesting. (Towards the end of my time in Argentina and since I’ve been back in the US I’ve focused on reading and inventorying all my images).
Figure 5: Box of letterbooks and binders of municipal ordinances (photo by author).
Figure 6: list of zoo animals that can be sold, 1903 (photo by author).
Figure 7: complaint regarding poor quality of forage, 1913 (photo by author).
As far as books and other materials went, a small amount had already been cleaned and inventoried as part of the pandemic-interrupted grant. I used that inventory and a systematic opening of all the boxes to find other relevant materials for my project. It probably wasn’t the most efficient approach, but I had time and it worked. In those boxes, I found lists of the students enrolled in the zoo’s aviculture courses, old guidebooks, a catalogue of the zoo’s library circa 1950, government ordinances, and more. All in all, I left the Ecoparque archive with nearly 3,000 images.
Working with a brand-new archive was exhilarating, fascinating, and frustrating in equal measure. The work was dirty and often physically exhausting, as the boxes were very heavy. One of the biggest challenges was keep tracking of what boxes I had already opened. I had no master list of how many boxes there were, each had several identifiers from multiple prior rounds of interrupted organizing projects, and I didn’t have space to move them into neat piles (I wish I had a photo of the back room to show you the tenuous stacks of irregular boxes!) However, I found a treasure trove of materials for my project as well as documents I was able to photograph and share with other scholars working on related topics. Above all, I left with deep appreciation for María José Micale and the staff of Ecoparque, all of whom generously welcomed me and did everything in their power to ensure my success. I hope other scholars will also be able to take advantage of the materials at Ecoparque, especially anyone interested in the Buenos Aires Zoo and the field of zoology between about 1900 and the 1990s.
More generally, if you should ever find yourself in a similar situation, here are a few tips:
- When trying to gain permission, it may be useful to mention if you have insurance. Institutional lawyers get very nervous about non-employees working on grounds.
- Bring masks and gloves and wear clothing that can get dirty.
- Take photos not just of the documents you find, but also the room and the boxes. This can help you keep track of what you’ve already opened. At the end of the day, I would often take a picture of the room and use my phone’s markup function to either scribble out the boxes I’d already opened or circle the ones that I needed to look at next. This was especially helpful for remembering where I was at when I wasn’t visiting on consecutive days.
- Create spreadsheets and record everything.
- Ask if there is anything you can help the archive owners with—do they want you to create an inventory as you go? Keep an eye out for anything in particular? Publicize their collection? Write a letter of support for a preservation grant?
- Similarly, profusely thank everyone who helps you out. When you’re done, consider writing a letter to their supervisor (if applicable) detailing how the archivist or employee furthered your project and reiterating the value of the archival materials. These letters can be used to push for funding in the future!
- Be generous—with the archive’s permission, consider sharing some of your finds with other scholars. One of the highlights of my time at Ecoparque was stumbling across materials that would help friends and colleagues and getting to email them photos.
1 For another blog post on Animal Studies, please see: González Cortés 2022.