In archival parlance, provenance refers to the original source or creator of a collection of material. Provenance is fundamental to preserving context for records and is the principle that provides the authority we give to records as being original.
After establishing provenance, archivists seek to preserve the original order of the material. This is generally considered the same sequence the original creator stored the records. It preserves the context of the materials.
Then there are times when records come to the archives without any provenance and are out of sequence. When enough clues are available, the restoration of original order is the best possible solution.
Such is the case with two folders labeled “Wilson, Dr. L. B. Mayo Foundation Rochester Minn.” One dated “1921-1925,” the other “1926-“.
Found among 1970s Medical School administrative records, the look of the folders, the dates of the material, and the content they contained all support the conclusion that they were not created by the dean’s office of the 1970s and were thus out of context and without an established provenance.
These folders primarily contain correspondence between Louis B. Wilson and Clarence Jackson, then head of anatomy at the University of Minnesota. The letters pertain to the transfer, release, and burial of corpses used for dissection between the University of Minnesota and Mayo.
It can be said that due to their intimate knowledge of an institution and changes in an organization over time that archivists figuratively know where all the bodies are buried. Yet, these two folders quite literally tell the story of where they are buried. The “they” being unclaimed bodies available for anatomical study and managed by the Medical School according to a 1913 state law.
A review of existing collections in the archives proved to be fruitful. A two box set of records transferred from the Department of Anatomy to the archives in 1951 contained identical folders, similar correspondence between Dr. Jackson & other individuals regarding the management of bodies for anatomical study, and a noticeable absence in the alphabetical order of correspondence files for an entry under “Wilson.”
At some point between 1926 and 1951 someone removed these two folders from the Dept. of Anatomy, yet the folders managed to remain paired together as they moved from office to office, hand to hand over the next 60 to 80 years until finally sent to the archives. The transfer of these seemingly miscellaneous materials to the archives was the key step in restoring their provenance and establishing their original order.