Introduction to the Fictional World of Archives, Art Galleries and Museums
Archives, archivists, records managers, secret documents and lost manuscripts have been used as characters, settings and plot devices in many stories, novels, movies and TV shows, as well as jokes and cartoons. The tradition of fictionalizing archives extends back to Graeco-Roman times according to classicist Mary Lefkowitz. Today, archives, archivists and records are so important to fiction that this Web page was written to document as fully as possible their many representations found in popular culture. Inspiration for this Web page came from a 1995 discussion on the ARCHIVES electronic mailing list about fictional archives. Sources include submissions by archivists and others, as well as Arlene Schmuland's bibliography from her American Archivist article.
Beginning on November 7, 1999, this site started tracking fictional representations of art galleries and museums.
This site is under continual development, so bookmark it now and come back often.
Fictional archives in written form extend back centuries to at least the Graeco-Roman era. Classicist Mary Lefkowitz in Not Out of Africa (1996) recounts a popular tradition among the Greek authors responsible for the "so-called Hermetica or discourses of Hermes" (Hermes Trismegistos or Trismegistus, meaning Hermes the Thrice-great):
... the Greek authors were following the standard conventions of a type of historical fiction that was popular in antiquity among both the Greeks and the Hebrews. In order to make their work seem more impressive, ancient writers concealed their real names and pretended to be famous historical figures and to have been living in earlier times. Often ancient writers of historical fiction claim to have found a hidden document, or to have translated a text from an ancient language. The story of the "discovery" of the discourses of Hermes follows that established pattern. In the fourth century Iamblichus [ca. 250-326 A.D.] explains that an otherwise unknown "prophet" Bitys had found Hermes' teaching inscribed in hieroglyphics in the inner sanctuary of the temple at Sais and translated (!) them for "king Ammon," by whom he meant the god Amun or Amun-Re. ... (p. 101)
Lefkowitz goes on to recount how the mid-18th century French novel Life of Sethos, based on imaginary Egyptian archives, came to influence the development of European and Caribbean Freemasonry.
Modern novels set in ancient Egypt, the period dating from between 3,100 B.C. to at least 332 B.C. when Alexander the Great conquered or was invited to rule Egypt, often feature a scribe, or the pharaoh's vizier, or some aspect of Egyptian recordkeeping that was at least if not more ubiquitous then that it is in today's world. Somewhat equivalent to a prime minister, the vizier also had charge of archival records. So today's novels set in Egypt may refer to scribes who are essentially records managers or archivists, as well as talk about the kind of work they do to help the ancient Egyptian bureaucracy lurch along.
Robert Ludlum is likely the author one thinks of in relation to plots turning on the archival record. Peter Gillis's 1979-80 essay on archives in espionage fiction uses several examples from Ludlum's novels. A more recent peer-reviewed scholarly analysis of fictional archivists is Arlene B. Schmuland's "The Archival Image in Fiction: An Analysis and Annotated Bibliography" (American Archivist) based on her M.A. thesis (August 1997). The titles listed in Schmuland's bibliography are incorporated into the title list on this site.