05 November, 2017

Beyond the Strongbox: The Deakin Archive

The Deakin Bro's London studio at 127 Fulham Street.  1885.
Courtesy of the Deakin Archives, Mifflin University.

The focus of our online exhibition is most certainly the Hawkins Strongbox and the fascinating and often enigmatic items contained therein.  But what we have discovered frequently over the course of the last eight years is that there are many, many resources beyond the Strongbox that also document the lives of Geoffrey Hawkins and his associates.  After deliberation with our sponsors at the Victorian Mechanical Museum, we have decided to showcase items that, while not originating in the Strongbox, relate directly to the histories revealed and studied here thus far.

Foremost among these recent discoveries is the Deakin Archive. The archive is part of the Mifflin University Library Archives and Special Collections.  It is administered and curated by Matthew Alexander, who is a direct descendant of Timothy Deakin.

It took Alexander a number of years to trace the origins of the collection. He explains:
In October 1962, twenty-three nondescript cardboard boxes were found at an estate sale in Munhall, Pennsylvania.  The boxes were filled with an enormous number of photographic negatives, prints, daguerreotypes, cabinet cards and other miscellany that appeared to date back to the Victorian era. They were discovered by Gabriel Sherman, a librarian at the nearby Carnegie Free Library of Duquesne. Sherman almost immediately recognized the value of his discovery and transferred the boxes to a storage room in his library's basement, where he planned on cataloguing the contents.
Just mere weeks after his acquisition of the materials, Sherman died of a fatal heart attack.  He had not shared his discovery with anyone and his initial research notes on the collection were clumsily mixed into one of the boxes by indifferent library staffers.  The boxes were subsequently relocated to a remote corner of the storage rooms and forgotten.
A few years later, the library was sold to the Duquesne School District which in turn demolished the building in 1967.  Prior to its demolition, many of the library's assets were deemed unusable by the school district and were donated to the nearby Mifflin University Library System.  Unfortunately, the collection was relegated again to storage where it went unnoticed for nearly thirty years.
The boxes were rediscovered in 2007 by a Hunter Schwab, a librarian conducting an inventory of undocumented assets.  Schwab was intrigued by what he found and noticed that most of the materials were associated with the name Deakin and the Deakin Bro's Photography Studios.  By fortuitous coincidence, Schwab happened to be a close personal friend. When describing the collection contents to me, I noted to him that my maternal lineage was Deakin and that my great-great grandfather was a rather renown scientist and inventor. Scott immediately invited me to examine the materials and we quickly verified the connection to my family lineage.  I have since spent the last ten years cataloguing and digitizing the collection contents.
Alexander found Sherman's original notes and was able to piece together the chronology of events he has here described.  He discovered our online exhibition in late 2015 but was disappointed to see that it had not been updated for a number of years.  He described his new awareness of the Hawkins Strongbox as revelatory and was anxious to share his own discoveries with both myself and the researchers at the Victorian Mechanical Museum.

The collection is especially notable in that many of the photographs include notes and annotations, providing descriptive details and identifying individuals and locations.  Items date from the Victorian era to the mid-twentieth century, and feature places that stretch from Great Britain to locations scattered all across North America. Needless to say, the archive has become an invaluable asset to the Hawkins Strongbox research team.

With the Hawkins Strongbox exhibition now restored to ongoing publication, we will very soon be sharing content from the Deakin Archive, courtesy of Mifflin University Library Archive and Special Collections.

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