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New Archives director wants Alabamians involved in their history

“We’re an extremely content-rich, tremendous resource for genealogists … in fact (for) anyone interested in their past. We have tremendous databases. And that is something that will continue in the future. It’s the way the world is moving …”

— Steve Murray, director, Alabama Department of Archives and History

By John Brightman Brock

It’s hard not to notice Steve Murray’s savvy, sensitivity and optimism when he lays out his plans as the new director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery. His cerebral, archival jargon converts quickly to an impassioned appeal to Alabamians to get involved in their own history, and then to make their own.

Murray says Alabamians are “inheriting” history, categorically placed in inviting rooms of artifact displays in the large white building across from the State Capitol. Now, they can create their own – whether navigating through the agency’s digital format online – bristling with functionality – or walking the halls, taking the stairs or elevators up to exhibits opening their understanding of who they are. As the chief Alabama history buff, Murray wants to encourage the appetites of Alabamians for their history, through technological means and more exhibits.

There are some “great things being done,” Murray said in a recent interview, including the completion of the Museum of Alabama later this year on the archives’ second floor. Eight months after the retirement of Ed Bridges, the archives’ director for three decades, the 42-year-old, web-centric historical project manager became director in a decision announced in Aug. 2012 and effective Oct. 1. Murray joined the agency in 2006 as assistant director for administration, and his responsibilities have included finance, budget, personnel, facilities, development and special projects. Bridges was named director emeritus and is devoting his time to developing the Museum of Alabama.

Pieces of the puzzle

The collections reflect the archival activity ongoing for the last 112 years. “Some of the most fascinating historical artifacts just walk in the door,” he says. “People appreciate what they have in their attics … those artifacts. Sometimes they are looking for a permanent place for those to go. They tend to have a very strong belief and high degree of confidence that they will be very well-cared for” at the archives. “What happens is that these artifacts are used to help the public understand their history. Every time we can fill a gap it helps us to complete the picture.”

Alabamians have a vital role to play in inheriting Alabama, Murray says, and his staff will be asking visitors to the Archives to reply to questions facing their state.

“We want to make the point, especially to younger visitors, that they are the inheritors. For better or worse, the decisions from the past shape what they are being handed. They have the role and responsibility to make the decisions that are best for Alabamians,” he says.

Things are looking up

Murray takes on his new role following years of intense economic hardship for the archives, but “things are looking up a bit,” Murray said. “But we’ll be very careful stewards to look after the resources we have.”

The archives’ staff was reduced by 40 percent during the recent recession, he says, so the administrative road ahead should be a “gradual process … with careful and thoughtful steps, not overreaching. But you don’t accomplish anything unless you set some type of goal. And there’s great work that can be done.”

He has been tasked with caring for the needs of Alabama governmental agencies, providing upon request voluminous public records that form the decisions of public officials. “These are the basis of the rights of Alabama citizens,” he says. “We are the custodians of these records for the people of our state.”

Then there’s the state’s electronic archives. “How to preserve not just 10 to 20, but 200 to 300 years?” he asks.

“How do we protect those records that are being created in the digital realm? We have to be able to preserve them and in a format that will be accessible in technology for continuous change. The records must be available for access …. to write the history of Alabama,” Murray says.

In the next few years, Murray aims to make the archives’ website more user-friendly and “more up to speed in terms of aesthetics” with the look and feel to entice most internet users. “We also want to develop some online apps to enhance visitors’ experience, and develop the opportunity for technology for younger people. They expect it.”

A personal fascination with history

A native of Shreveport, Murray’s love of history began in the northwest and west central portions of Louisiana.

“I grew up with a fascination with history, something that started with an interest in archeology and ancient history. I was fascinated with ancient Egypt.” And as he grew older, his historical curiosity stirred even more from decades of configuring his own roots.

Murray reveals a family where maternal grandparents were “children of sharecroppers, growing up in poverty on opposite sides of the Sabine River” – he near Joaquin, Texas, and she near Logansport. “My paternal grandfather grew up on a family farm that Michael Murray homesteaded after the Civil War in rural Natchitoches Parish, La. They owned their own land, farmed and did other jobs on the side.

“My paternal grandmother grew up on a large cotton plantation on the bank of the Red River, near Ida, La. Her parents managed the plantation for an absentee landowner. African American tenants worked the plantation. It was a large operation, complete with its own commissary.”

A young, aspiring Murray went to Louisiana College in Pineville, La., where 1,100 students worked toward degrees and he pursued “a fantastic education” double-majoring in history and English. Upon graduation, he headed to graduate school at Auburn University, attaining his master’s degree and intending to get his doctorate, although he stopped short.

What lay directly in his path was a research assistantship with The Alabama Review, he says, that “moved me into the venue of editing and publishing.” He had been in that journalistic realm before, as editor of his college newspaper. So he started as a graduate assistant, then serving as managing editor from 2000 to 2006. “During an overlapping period, I was also managing editor of the Encyclopedia of Alabama from 2002 to 2006.” The EOA, at the time, was a joint venture of Auburn University and the Alabama Humanities Foundation, and was part of a team with Dr. Wayne Flynt, he said.  “We fundraised to put this together as a digital resource at no cost to the user.”

In 2006, opportunity knocked at the archives.

“Something opened up … a good fit for my history and project management background. And that was something that the department was looking for, an assistant director for administration.” It was in that capacity that he began to work with Bridges.

The Museum of Alabama

Dominating his life for a while will be constructing the “Museum of Alabama,” which is the name of the museum within the Department of Archives and History.

Completed in 2011, Phase I of the museum included two permanent exhibitions: “The Land” and “The First Alabamians,” both located on the building’s second floor. The museum’s Phase II, being constructed nearby, includes one permanent exhibition: “Alabama Voices.”

Under-girding the Museum of Alabama is “Becoming Alabama,” a programming emphasis that took shape through a series of conversations around the state, beginning in the spring of 2009.

“Becoming Alabama is not just our effort,” Murray says. “The idea grew with input from other organizations in Alabama working with history and culture. Among them, Alabama Heritage magazine, the Encyclopedia of Alabama, the Shelby County Historical Society and others who are using Alabama as a point of interest in their programs.”

An exhibition covering the years 1700 to 2000, Alabama Voices is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2013, with a grand opening in early 2014. It will be a very “defining” journey that visitors will enjoy, Murray says. “During those 300 years, it was the people who came here, the motivations they had; the conflict/cooperations defined who we were … and we became a state.

“We gain a better understanding of the past every day,” Murray says. “Like putting together pieces from a large puzzle.”

Steve Murray can be reached by contacting the Alabama Department of Archives and History, P.O. Box 300100, 624 Washington Ave., Montgomery, AL 36130; 334-242-4435; or online at www.archives.alabama.gov/