Smithsonian tours

Last month, I traveled to Washington D.C. for the IS&T Archiving conference. I headed out a few days early in order to meet with a couple of archivists at the Smithsonian. My first stop was the Smithsonian Institutional Archives, and my second stop was the National Anthropological Archives.

I met with the photography archivist, Marguerite Roby, at the Institutional Archives, and it was incredibly helpful meeting with someone managing collections so similar to those I’m overseeing at the Art Institute of Chicago. We discussed issues we’re currently facing, and she provided suggestions based on similar challenges she’s encountered. She stressed finding an approach and sticking to it, for consistency it’s not about the perfect solution, rather one that will work in most situations and will produce repeatable results. She also encouraged our department to work collaboratively with other departments to learn more about our materials, and to foster institutional ownership of the collections.

She also provided the history of the Institutional Archives, whose complicated past mirrors our story. With institutional archives, especially photographic material, it seems as though the distinction between “working” and “archival” material is often hard to make. At AIC, this is reflected in the fact that the Imaging department, that which is currently making new documentation for the museum, is still tasked with managing all historical photographic documentation. At Smithsonian, progress has been made in the form of one centralized repository for all institutional documentation, but there is much work to be done to sort and catalog a legacy of inconsistent management. It was eye-opening hearing her thoughts about the unique challenges embedded within photographic institutional archives, which I’ve felt intuitively, but have never been able to pinpoint exactly.

Additionally, we talked shop about image records, metadata, information management systems and workflow, storage, and digitization. While Marguerite is dealing with a scale of material that far surpasses our collections, learning about the ways in which our day-to-day work is similar and differs gave me ideas on what we can improve. It confirmed areas where we’re on the right track, and areas that need more attention. We also toured the on-site storage in the Smithsonian Institutional Archives building in D.C. The majority of photographic material is located elsewhere, but I was grateful for the opportunity to take a look at some of their archival material. One item in particular, the custom slide cabinet and vertical viewing station, caught my eye.

It was wonderful discussing archives, and institutional archives in particular, with a professional with so much experience and knowledge.

 Storage in the Institutional Archives office building

Storage in the Institutional Archives office building

 Slide storage and viewing cabinet

Slide storage and viewing cabinet

 Custom housing for glass plate negatives

Custom housing for glass plate negatives

 Material to-be-sorted from a departing Smithsonian staff member

Material to-be-sorted from a departing Smithsonian staff member

The next day, I met with photograph archivist Gina Rappaport, who manages the National Anthropological Archives. Her office and storage are located in one of the off-site facilities outside Washington D.C. - one of the warehouse spaces I’ve long wanted to visit.

She told me about the Archives’ long history and how ownership and management as shifted over the decades. Paralleling the Institutional Archives, and our own, it’s interesting to learn how common a reality this is for archives - and it’s a reality which has a huge impact on archivists’ work. Uneven oversight results in piecing together puzzles and backtracking to revise work previously done. This is further complicated with Gina’s material, since there are so many different creators. Institutional archives can be considered mainly in terms of the institution itself as creator and subject, but more traditional collections like the National Anthropological Archives have unique creators and subjects.

We discussed physical and intellectual organization of the archives. She helped answer some of my questions about the utility of creating finding aids for our collection, and how to go about resolving physical reorganization which has resulted in a loss of information about material. These management issues made it clear how important it is to have trained archivists overseeing materials like these. While interpretation of collections is good, it can’t happen without measures in place which allow for the safe storage, retrieval, and care of these materials.

She led me on a tour of some of the photographic archives storage space in the building, as well as some of the general museum collections storage, primarily for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The building has been custom designed to maximize storage space, with 435,000 square feet dedicated to the collections. This includes rows upon rows of stationary and compact shelving units filled with historic negatives and prints. The photographic archives are beautifully housed, and Gina discussed their good fortune of having volunteers dedicated to making custom housing for unique or unstable materials. This includes floating mylar supports so researchers can look at original negatives without having to touch them. They also have extensive cold and frozen storage both on- and off-site, and a comprehensive digitization program.

These more traditional archives gave me a better sense of context about archives on the whole, and the ways in which our institutional archives fit in the larger field.

 One small section of photographic archives storage for the National Anthropological Archives

One small section of photographic archives storage for the National Anthropological Archives

 Nitrate negatives, soon to be stored in freezers

Nitrate negatives, soon to be stored in freezers

 Custom housing for glass plate negatives: mylar support to allow viewing and reduce handling

Custom housing for glass plate negatives: mylar support to allow viewing and reduce handling

I’m incredibly thankful for the chance to spend so much time talking to these archivists, and for the opportunity to tour their facilities and see their collections. The field of cultural heritage is perpetually overworked and understaffed, so it’s a testament to the generosity of staff like Marguerite and Gina to take time out to meet with me. I learned so much from both of these visits, and I’ve made some valuable professional connections. I hope that I’ll be able to pay it forward in the future, especially once I have more formal archival training under my belt.

Midwest Archives Conference 2018

This was my first year attending the Midwest Archives Conference, and luckily, it was located here in Chicago. I knew it would be a smaller event than the American Institute for Conservation conference that I attended last spring, and I was pleasantly surprised by the content presented. In particular, there was a cohesiveness in the tours and sessions I attended on the first day, all of which related to diversity in archival practice. The day started off with a tour of two southside archival repositories: the Carter G. Woodson Regional branch of the Chicago Public Library (CPL) and the DuSable Museum of African American History, and it ended with conference sessions.

At Woodson, we toured the newly reopened facility and learned more about the history of this regional branch. This included a discussion of and glimpse at some of the materials in the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature. This collection is one of the largest and most comprehensive documenting black life in Chicago and the region as a whole (Chicago Public Library 2018). Part of the history of these materials is the strong support of the surrounding southside community itself: neighbors banned together to raise funds in order to build an expansion of the library to house the collection, and they fought against the relocation of the materials to the hub CPL location downtown Chicago. The Vivan G. Harsh society formed as a non-profit friends organization in 1994 to directly support the archival materials at Woodson (Vivian G. Harsh Society 2018). Our librarian guide recounted the variety of content in the collection, from newspaper clippings to funeral programs to yearbooks. She also spoke to the wide range of users of this material, including genealogists and students working on history fair projects. I enjoyed the chance both the take in the space, especially the beautiful art and revamped exhibit featuring the archival collections, and appreciated the opportunity to see the closed stacks and learn about this amazing collection from staff.

 Exhibit space at Woodson regional branch, featuring several archival collections stored onsite.

Exhibit space at Woodson regional branch, featuring several archival collections stored onsite.

 A few of the many yearbooks stored in the closed stacks.

A few of the many yearbooks stored in the closed stacks.

Our second stop was the DuSable Museum of African American History, which I visited several years ago in order to write a paper for one of my Museum Studies classes at Northwestern. Our visit started in the amazing entrance hall covered in Thomas Miller mosaics, where the museum’s archivist, Ms. Skyla Hearn, told us the story of the institution. The museum exists today because of the efforts of Dr. Margaret Taylor ­Burroughs. She was passionate about African American culture and history and worked tirelessly to create a place where the community’s story could be told. She and her second husband Charles developed the idea for a museum, and with the support of a large network, they transformed their plan into reality. The museum has grown substantially since it first opened its doors to the public in 1961, and it was through Dr. Burroughs’ strategic collecting and deep connections with the local community that has led the institution to its current position as an invaluable and beloved museum dedicated to telling important, often untold or overlooked stories (Feldman 1981).

Ms. Hearn then led us on a tour of their exhibition spaces, and we ended up spending the most time in the more recently developed exhibit Freedom, Resistance, and the Journey Toward Equality. There were a number of impactful archival pieces featured, including ephemera from America’s slave trade through posters and film footage from the civil rights movement. The exhibition is “dedicated to the thousands of unsung lives given in the name of freedom and equality,” and it tells important stories in a limited amount of space (DuSable Museum 2018). The archivist then spoke about upcoming exhibits and the joy of finding new content while organizing and cataloging the museum’s archival collections. We ended our tour in the newly completed reading room for the Hamilton Institute for Research and Civic Involvement. The museum has been working closely with Dr. Charles V. Hamilton, scholar, activist, and political scientist, on the creation of this addition to the museum (Hutcherson 2018). Dr. Hamilton’s papers (an ongoing acquisition), in addition to a wide range of additional archival and rare book collections can be viewed in the new reading room. It was exciting to hear about the substantial progress that has been made acquiring, cataloging, and making accessible collections relating to African American history. These are amazing resources, and they are in good hands.

 Some of the collections on display in the exhibit  Freedom, Resistance, and the Journey Toward Equality

Some of the collections on display in the exhibit Freedom, Resistance, and the Journey Toward Equality

The conference officially kicked off with the plenary session, which featured Natalie Moore, WBEZ Chicago Public Radio investigative reporter and author of The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation. Much of her work looks at entrenched segregation in Chicago, and her book is a deep-dive into the impacts of segregation on the housing market. While much of the content focuses on more contemporary events, looking at her and her family’s experience with property ownership, she does provide historical context for their story. Local archival repositories (Chicago History Museum, Newberry Library, Chicago Public Library, etc) were important resources for her in covering the histories of the Great Migration, Jim Crow, redlining, public housing, and white flight. Primary source materials helped her to gather data about the realities of inequity in neighborhoods and housing. She related how even materials like yearbooks could provide valuable insights: patterns of shifting neighborhood demographics could be traced in photographs of the student body over the course of a few years. It is exciting to see the ways in which archival materials can be used and interpreted, especially linking the past with current realities. I am grateful that there are individuals like Ms. Moore who are making the connections between past and present issues, and telling stories which will hopefully make the city and region as a whole more aware of the ongoing inequity in Chicago and beyond.

Finally, the general sessions at the conference began in earnest. I attended a panel program entitled “Beyond Institutional Boundaries: Community Archives and Representational Belonging,” in which five speakers addressed various institutions and programs that are embracing local communities. Each project reflected the notion of “representational belonging,” which is key to deferring the erasing of communities and instead provides them the agency to collect and tell their own stories (Caswell 2016). Presenters discussed Mukurtu Collections Management System and ArtHyve, in addition to the Chicago Area Archivists (CAA) Day of service at Pullman State Historic Site, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Preservation Outreach project at Stony Island Arts Bank, and the history of Shorefront Legacy Center.

The Pullman project was an interesting case study in the merger of historic sites with archival content and the surrounding community. The representative from CAA proposed that regional archival organizations can fulfill a unique role in how they serve their surrounding communities, as they are comprised of individuals not institutions. As such, some of the power struggles and challenges with agency and ownership may not arise. In this instance, CAA worked with the neighborhood to define common goals for the project and emphasized relationship building throughout the process. The end result was the cataloging of over 180 boxes of archival material relating to the historic site, which included box level inventories and condition assessments. Archivists from CAA assisted in organizing the event, and providing expertise, but it was the community of local volunteers in this southside neighborhood which owned and directed the work.

 Slide from the CAA and Pullman collaboration

Slide from the CAA and Pullman collaboration

The ALA preservation outreach project also helped make common ground between conservation practitioners and another southside Chicago neighborhood via a local cultural center. The Stony Island Arts Bank is a “hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community center – and a home for Rebuild’s archives and collections,” Rebuild being the parent organization (Stony Islands Art Bank 2018). This site was chosen because its location in an area historically underrepresented and under-resourced in terms of archival care and management, and the ALA series is focused on engaging in partnership with these types of organizations. The day-long event started with presentations from ALA members on preservation best practices in regards to a wide range of archival material reflected in the collection, from books to photographs, sheet music, posters, and ephemera. The rest of the day was spent working with Arts Bank staff and community volunteers to rehouse portions of the collection. Access to these materials is a crucial aspect of the mission for the organization, so the goal of this partnership was addressing collections care to help ensure their longevity. The Dorchester Avenue photograph collection was one focal point for the effort. These found images from the neighborhood show snippets everyday black life in Chicago from the 1950s to the 1980s. Their rehousing in binders will allow easier access and will help to keep them organized and protected. The Ed Williams collection was also addressed, and it is through an ALA press release about these materials in particular that led to a newspaper article on the preservation outreach project. This write-up resulted in increased community donations and engagement with the cultural center. The event not only provided the Arts Bank with rehoused archival material, it also provided foundational preservation knowledge to attendees, and it helped further connect the organization with its neighborhood.

The Shorefront Legacy Center’s history is a demonstration of true community archiving in practice. The organization originated with the goal of showing the experiences of black life in the suburbs around Chicago, not just in the urban environment (Shorefront Legacy Center 2018). This community-created organization was developed in order to address a lack of representation in traditional archival spaces, and to reverse narratives of powerlessness that sometimes follow with black history and representation. The center instead focuses on empowerment and agency through collaboration with the community it represents. This is done in part through a partnership with the Black Metropolis Research Consortium. The relationship supports the center’s work through education on best practices and guidelines, as well as increased visibility and the subsequent increase in resources. One recent project the center has undertaken has been an outreach project with one of the Evanston YMCA branches. Community relations with this location were poor due to the lasting legacy of segregation: local African Americans were barred from joining or using this facility in the mid-twentieth century. Archival material in the form of meeting minutes were used to facilitate open forum discussions and the recording of oral histories. This helped the community to more openly discuss and collectively process its history, and it led to an exhibition at the Shorefront Legacy Center, as well as documentary books and films. At the same time, this project helped with YMCA to act to bridge the gap by acknowledging their history (renaming rooms) and welcoming the entire community (creating scholarships). The center strives to collect, provide access to, and foster development of products (exhibitions, art, documentaries) in order to reach more individuals and tell more stories. This nimble organization has accomplished a great deal, and embodies community-led archiving, in spite of limited resources.

 Slide from the Shorefront Legacy Center presentation

Slide from the Shorefront Legacy Center presentation

I learned so much in one day, and the theme of diversity and representational belonging resonated with me. I have worked in traditional museum and library spaces, which have not always focused on or done an adequate job of collecting material from diverse communities or successfully partnering with them. I hope that this will change as time goes on, and institutions realize how valuable these relationships are. Additionally, I hope traditional repositories can take cues from community-organized repositories to learn what equitable collaborations look like. I also hope to be involved in or support in some way community archiving efforts at the National Public Housing Museum. This community has historically been incredibly effective at organizing and advocating, and I am sure that this grassroots-founded museum will do wonderful things.

 

References

Caswell, M., Cifor, M. & Ramirez, M. (2016) “To Suddenly Discover Yourself Existing”: Uncovering the Impact of Community Archives. The American Archivist: Spring/Summer 2016, 79(1), 56-81.https://doi.org/10.17723/0360-9081.79.1.56

Chicago Public Library: Woodson Regional. (2018). Retrieved April 3, 2018 from https://www.chipublib.org/about-woodson-regional-library/

The DuSable Museum: Freedom, resistance, and the journey toward equality. (2018). Retrieved April 3, 2018 from http://www.dusablemuseum.org/exhibits/freedom-resistance-and-the-journey-toward-equality/

Feldman, E. & DuSable Museum of African American History. (1981). The birth and the building of the DuSable Museum. Chicago: DuSable Museum Press.

Hutcherson, L. (2018, January 27). Noted Political Scientist Dr. Charles V. Hamilton Establishes Research Institute at DuSable Museum in Chicago. Good Black News. Retrieved from https://goodblacknews.org/2018/01/27/noted-political-scientist-dr-charles-v-hamilton-establishes-research-institute-at-dusable-museum-in-chicago/

Shorefront Legacy Center. (2018). Retrieved April 3, 2018 from http://www.shorefrontlegacy.org/

Stony Island Arts Bank. (2018). Retrieved April 3, 2018 from https://rebuild-foundation.org/site/stony-island-arts-bank/

Vivian G. Harsh Society. (2017). Retrieved April 3, 2018 from http://harshsociety.org/

MASS Action, meeting 1

Last year, a cross-departmental group of staff from the Art Institute of Chicago attended MASS Action, a national convening of cultural heritage institutions committed to supporting practices of equity and inclusion at their home institutions. The goals of this group are far-reaching and ambitious, but they are necessary. From MASS Action’s website:

“As the museum field begins to shape its identity in the 21st century, MASS Action poses the following questions for practitioners to consider: What is the role and responsibility of the museum in responding to issues affecting our communities locally and globally? How do the museum’s internal practices need to change in order to align with, and better inform, their public practice? How can the museum be used as a site for social action? Through a series of public convenings and the creation of a toolkit of resources, this project's intention is to share the strategies and frameworks needed to address these important topics.”

The first two institution-wide meeting to discuss the toolkit took place this month. MASS Action provided a framework for this discussion to get started, which is invaluable given the challenging nature of the content to be covered. We started by chatting with a neighbor, and posing the question - what does social action mean to you? There were lots of animated conversations taking place throughout the room, and my discussion partner and I talked about the necessity of connecting with people directly. Even though there are many means of interacting, face-to-face communication is necessary to forge strong ties, build momentum, and provide a reminder of the humanity of both peers and the public we’re serving.

A set of ground rules were then laid out by the organizers, to which we all agreed:

  • We are making an honest attempt to address the most pressing issues of equity within our museum. We are building a network of people that are (and have been) developing long-term solutions and effective strategies based on the immediate confrontation of our most pressing issues.

  • In developing these strategies and solution, we emphasize our own power, not our powerlessness.

  • We share the airtime. We listen to understand. We ask questions before assuming. The best way to understand the choices, actions or intentions of one another is by asking.

  • In order to create a space where everyone may speak freely, we recognize the importance of confidentiality. What is said here stays here, what is learned here leaves. We encourage you to ask before quoting, online or in-person,  someone when they are sharing their thoughts in a space of trust.

  • We encourage people to engage with their whole selves, not just with one part of their identity.

  • We deeply value the time and energy participants are contributing to this project, and therefore want to create a safe, productive, healing space. Please ensure you maintain your health, energy and wellbeing throughout these discussions.

These guidelines helped set the tone for the work that we need to do. It is about sharing in a non-judgemental way, working together, and respecting where folks are coming from - basic ideas, but necessary to state in an increasingly hostile world.

We then broke into groups of about 10, to address two prompts: what is our truth, what is our role in the museum. I ended up talking with many peers I’d never met before, who represented a range of departments across the museum and central administration. We discussed in depth our identities and how certain “truths” (place in the family, state we grew up in, etc) inform how we function both in and outside of work. Additionally, we talked about how we exist in this institution, its relation to our identities, and the challenges we personally face. We also addressed the fractured nature of this museum, both in terms of physical space and in terms of work divisions. Given how large the institution is, many staff do not have opportunities to connect with each other.

I have always approached museums and archives from a collections-oriented perspective. I believe in the power for original source material to tell stories, for the benefit, growth, and education of all. As such, my focus in career development has been on the stuff-side of the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museum) world. I now know that there is no neutrality in the notion that cultural heritage institutions are collectors. The history of our holdings are rife with trauma. Colonial powers have taken materials they had no right to. Museums have continued imperialist tradition by continuing to claim ownership, and presenting in often uninformed or insensitive ways materials from hosts of cultures. Even the ways in which we categorize and catalog materials has been done in a privileged and tone-deaf manner.

Museums cannot be neutral, every choice made betrays priorities and biases - even when we are not aware of them. Fortunately, there are efforts to address these problematic sides of collections and archives. NAGPRA is one very small step in a positive direction, necessary but limited in scope. Mukurtu collections management system is an even more meaningful effort. This open-source platform allows communities to assert sovereignty for their cultural materials - in how these items are cataloged, shared, and keyworded. On the stuff-side of GLAM work, we need to be open to change and we need to move away from institution-as-owner-and-authority. Dr. Kimberly Christen gave a wonderful presentation on all of these ideas, and it is something all museums need to embrace.

Outside of collections as challenges in the context of social structures and uneven power, museums must also address our institutions in the context of our local and global communities. I have been slowly coming around to the idea that without people, without outreach and support to and interest by these people, these materials have little value. The human-side of GLAM institutions is thus crucial. This is likely obvious to most, but it’s dramatically altered the way in which I think about my work and the work of my peers. It was therefore striking and confirming that our group discussion focused on people, not the museum as a collecting entity. The museum is an organization of people, and it is for the benefit of other people. As such, our identities and challenges as staff can help to inform how we might think about the public we serve. Additionally, this groundwork can help us to determine what change can come from within. It is not enough to offer more programs for local public school kids. We need to embrace and reflect the change we want internally before we can hope to expect meaningful change externally. And as a member of our group succinctly pointed out, everyone wants change, but not as many want to change.

At the end of our too-short introductory MASS Action session, each group chose a representative to say once sentence that summed up the discussion in their group. It was interesting to listen to the range of ideas expressed: accessibility, audience selection, donor relations upholding the status quo, institution size as both a pro and con, the need for vulnerability. As the meeting ended, what stuck out in my mind was the notion that our reputation and identity could hold us back.

Art museums have a reputation for being elitist, for catering to and telling the stories of a select few. I think this is even more-so the case of a museum like ours, which does not focus on contemporary practice, but rather attempts to be encyclopedic in scope. It may not seem necessary, then, for our museum to embrace issues our world faces today head-on. Our behemoth size make timely, meaningful internal change difficult. It feels akin to correcting the course of the Titanic - we will need buy-in from hundreds of staff and from all levels of management. Our reputation as one of the top art museums will make external change difficult. We need to find a way of moving beyond this way of defining the institution, so that it can be a more welcoming, inclusive community center.

I do not think these challenges are insurmountable, and I do not think we should use them as excuses to not even bother trying. I hope that we can continue coming together to reflect on who we are and what we can do, so that change can happen internally and externally. This is a good start to larger conversations here at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I sincerely hope we can turn the conversation into action.

 

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AIC Archives & GWU Museum Collections Management & Care Program

Last month I finished up the last class to complete the George Washington University graduate certificate program in Museum Collections Management and Care. Over the course of four semesters, I was able to grow my skill set and gain a solid foundation in basic collections management principles. The first two classes focused on preventive conservation, the third in general management protocol, and the final in legal aspects of the field. I knew about some of the ideas behind these topics from internships and jobs in museums, but these classes provided me with much more in-depth information.

Each class also provided a wealth of resources, so even if I come across challenges in the future and do not know the solution, I feel confident in knowing where to look for answers. I also enjoyed the structure of the classes: all were taken with the same classmates, so we built solid relationships in spite of the courses being offered exclusively online. I know those enrolled with me, along with my professors, will continue to be an amazing network of knowledge, experience, and camaraderie far into the future.

It might seem as though these topics could not effectively be offered without in-person instruction, but the program requires that you have access to museum or archival collections. This is crucial, as much of the coursework is reliant upon the application of principles taught. As a result, I was able to use what I learn to improve the physical and intellectual control over the photographic institutional archives at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I work. Projects included assessing the temperature and humidity levels, monitoring dust, and analyzing and advising on copyright, right to privacy, and right to publicity issues in the archives. You can find out more about work I’ve undertaken here, both class-related and independently.

It’s reassuring to look back on the progress that’s been made in the archives over the last year or so. The resources are perceived to have greater value, awareness of the content represented is growing, resources and manpower is being dedicated to continued work, and the museum has applied for an IMLS grant to further sustain the archive project as a whole. This was my first opportunity being a grant writing project lead (class projects provided a fantastic starting point for this!), and with the help of many talented colleagues, hopefully we will secure funding for additional funding. This award will be used for contract positions for the digitization and rehousing of photographic archival material, as well as image record creation.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to have begun managing the archives. Eighteen months ago, I was curious about the contents and care of the archives but lacking the knowledge and experience to tackle the work. I still have much to learn, but I’m happy that my coursework has helped our department to make progress in the care and management of our resources.

 

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National Public Housing Museum - Housing as a Human Right

I had the opportunity to help out again this year with the National Public Housing Museum’s exhibit for the second Chicago Architecture Biennial. The office space was used as the venue, and Archeworks the host and owner of the space co-curated a portion of the show. Housing as a Human Right: Social Construction was the title, and it reflects both the mission of the museum and key aspects of public housing the show focused on: health, policing, activism, entrepreneurial acts. I assisted with researching and coordinating visuals and writing and organizing interpretive text. The team did a wonderful job, and the opening was packed full of visitors. The exhibit has been extended through February, and it’s worth a visit.

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In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum hosted an event soon after the opening, which addressed the current state of public housing in Chicago. Shaq McDonald, of the film 70 Acres in Chicago, led a walking tour of the nearby Cabrini low-rise apartments and the surrounding neighborhood. He talked about his memories of housing in the years before a majority of it was closed by the CHA, and about the current tension between long-time public housing residents and the new, affluent condo and homeowners in the area. I appreciated his insight and openness in walking us through his home. I was conflicted with the notion of a large group of outsiders acting as tourists, but Shaq was good about setting some ground rules. This will be an ongoing challenge for the museum: avoiding any exoticisation of public housing and “othering” of its residents.

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The tour was followed up by a panel discussion of CHA’s Plan for Transformation and wider issues of the deprioritization of public housing and other support systems in cities across the United States. Shaq was joined by Roberta Feldman and Chuy Garcia, and they addressed a wide range of factors contributing to the unfortunate state of housing today. The audience was active in asking questions and bringing in additional personal experiences. While it was a frustrating topic to learn more about, it was encouraging to be filled by a room of folks who obviously want the status quo to change for the better.

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Architecture Foundation Open House Chicago 2017

This year’s Architecture Foundation Open House Chicago didn’t disappoint. The first day brought constant rain, but that didn’t prevent me from getting out to explore. I visited sites in west town, the loop, river north, the lower west side, bronzeville, and grand boulevard over the course of the weekend. These are just a few of my phone snaps, I’m looking forward to editing my camera photos soon.

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Oregon Historical Society - Oregon My Oregon

During our visit to the Oregon Historical Society, we spent most of our time in the permanent exhibit, Oregon My Oregon. It covered history from the earliest tribal groups to the post-war decades. Topics covered include geography, native languages and culture, exploration, missionaries, the Oregon Trail, 20th century immigration, and the growth of Oregon industries. Having been revamped in the last 15 years, the museum addresses what many would deem to be controversial topics: workers rights, systemic racism, genocide, environmentalism. This treatment of real issues, and the role they play in the state’s history and identity, helped the museum to win some accolades. From the exhibition website:

“The American Association of Museums has awarded the Modern Oregon Issues segment of Oregon My Oregon a Silver 2005 MUSE Award in the History and Culture category. The visitor-controlled display plays video narratives of current events in Oregon. The unique interface is themed on Portland's famous Newberry's lunch counter and its countertop jukeboxes. Selecting a topic from a jukebox initiates a presentation featuring real Oregonians discussing the issue.”

The museum was also recognized by AASLH for its permanent exhibit. It felt refreshing that the institution addressed very real parts of the region’s past, rather than simply retelling or glorifying the same story we’re often told of western expansion and settlement. Hopefully more museums will take a cue and more honestly portray the stories they’ve set out to tell.

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Museum of Contemporary Art - To The Racy Brink

As I’ve visited the MCA in the years that I’ve lived in Chicago, I’ve grown to appreciate more and more the timeliness and relevance of their exhibits and programming. It feels like they accomplish much, and are able to foster meaningful ties with the city as a whole, regardless of their size. The exhibit To The Racy Brink is a culmination of the museum’s work and its ties to the community.

The exhibit kicks of the institutions 50th anniversary, and it highlights the museum’s role in championing contemporary artists and their work. The museum’s archives are the core source of material, which is what immediately drew me to it. Artist interviews, exhibition posters and catalogs, photographic documentation, and visitor feedback cards paint a vivid picture of contemporary art at the museum over the years. Newspaper clippings were also on display, full of puns and often bewilderment at the art itself. The presentation of the archival material doesn’t present a universally rosy picture of how shows and works were received, rather that they had impact, caused reactions, and often pushed visitors to see things differently. As one of the television commercials for the MCA boldly declares: “I don’t get it, but I like it!”

Archives and library staff were kind enough to give staff from our department a tour of their office and storage space, as well as the exhibit itself. It was beneficial comparing and contrasting our institutions, as new perspectives can aid in reflection and change. They were able to provide some really interesting insight about the development of the exhibit, and how it encouraged greater institutional understanding of the importance of the work in their department.

As we move forward with work in our institutional photographic archives, it was invaluable to experience and learn more about a celebration of another museum’s past through its archives. We’ve already begun brainstorming ways of making our materials more accessible, hopefully we can organize a similar experience one day - be it a publication, digital portal, or physical exhibit.

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Oregon Historical Society - Mirror on the Modern Woman

We had the chance to visit the Oregon Historical Society in Portland last month. Though we spent the most time wandering through the permanent exhibit, we also happened upon a smaller photography exhibit that I enjoyed. It was located downstairs in a hallway space, so it felt like a great discovery when we started walking through it. The exhibit, Mirror on the Modern Woman: Selected Images from the Oregon Journal, 1927–1932, features portraits of modern female Oregonians, engaging in a variety of activities from a fairly broad cross-section of local society. What made these images even more engaging was the text that accompanied each - the story of these women, the headline or blurb that would have been published in the newspaper. This descriptive information helped to tell deeper stories behind the beautiful portraits, and it provided an important link back to the original source The Oregon Journal.

I was also excited that this exhibit developed as a result of a digitization project. From the website:

“This exhibit is inspired by ongoing work, funded by a generous grant from the Jackson Foundation, to digitize the research library’s collection of 9,000 nitrate negatives from the Oregon Journal. The Portland newspaper, an afternoon daily published from 1902 to 1982, was one of the largest papers in the state and a competitor to The Oregonian. The stunning original images date from approximately the mid-1920s to the early 1930s and have not previously been made accessible to the public. They provide a vivid look at people, places, and topics that journalists of that era found newsworthy. The vibrant breadth of life preserved in these photographs highlights the value of the state’s newspapers as historical resources: they serve as mirrors that reflect expansive views into Oregon’s past.”

It’s wonderful to see work like this being highlighted, to increase awareness about these types of collections and to increase access through physical exhibitions.

 "These unidentified dancers were probably performing in a May Day celebration in Portland, Oregon. May Day festivities were common during this era, with celebrations put on by towns, businesses, organizations, and schools."

"These unidentified dancers were probably performing in a May Day celebration in Portland, Oregon. May Day festivities were common during this era, with celebrations put on by towns, businesses, organizations, and schools."

 "When the Portland YWCA opened registration for spring sports classes in April 1927, Lillian Blackman and Sophia Wehrly posed for a photograph with field hockey equipment. Field hockey "is not very well known generally," the Journal reported, noting that the YWCA would supply the equipment for the hockey class. "It is a sport which provides vigorous exercise." Blackman and Wehrly are on the roof of what is likely the YWCA building at SW Taylor and Broadway. Visible in the background is the Jackson Tower, where the Oregon Journal offices were located from 1912 to 1948. The YWCA building was demolished in 1959." 

"When the Portland YWCA opened registration for spring sports classes in April 1927, Lillian Blackman and Sophia Wehrly posed for a photograph with field hockey equipment. Field hockey "is not very well known generally," the Journal reported, noting that the YWCA would supply the equipment for the hockey class. "It is a sport which provides vigorous exercise." Blackman and Wehrly are on the roof of what is likely the YWCA building at SW Taylor and Broadway. Visible in the background is the Jackson Tower, where the Oregon Journal offices were located from 1912 to 1948. The YWCA building was demolished in 1959." 

 "Mrs. D.W. Barnes of Portland celebrated her 90th birthday on June 27, 1928 by taking her first ride in an airplane. Her son E.L. Barnes (possibly the man on the left) accompanied her in a Ryan monoplane flown by pilot Gordon Mounce (possibly the man in the background). More than two dozen family members and friends turned out to watch. Mrs. Barnes was an avid follower of aviation news, the Journal reported in a brief article, and had been planning the flight for quite a while. At the end of it, she "landed breathless and pleased," the Journal reported."

"Mrs. D.W. Barnes of Portland celebrated her 90th birthday on June 27, 1928 by taking her first ride in an airplane. Her son E.L. Barnes (possibly the man on the left) accompanied her in a Ryan monoplane flown by pilot Gordon Mounce (possibly the man in the background). More than two dozen family members and friends turned out to watch. Mrs. Barnes was an avid follower of aviation news, the Journal reported in a brief article, and had been planning the flight for quite a while. At the end of it, she "landed breathless and pleased," the Journal reported."

 "An unidentified performer with the Al G. Barnes Circus demonstrates her skills on horseback during one of the circus's stops in Portland. The Barnes circus performed regularly in Portland and throughout the Pacific Northwest."

"An unidentified performer with the Al G. Barnes Circus demonstrates her skills on horseback during one of the circus's stops in Portland. The Barnes circus performed regularly in Portland and throughout the Pacific Northwest."

 "Stunt pilot Dorothy Hester was probably around age nineteen when she posed next to a plan for this photograph. Hester, from Milwaukie, Oregon, learned to fly at the Rankin School of Flying in Portland. She impressed Tex Rankin, and he taught her aerobatics. In June 1930, at age nineteen, she became the first woman to perform a stunt called an outside loop. Hester wowed audiences both in Oregon and at air shows around the nation, set world records for stunt flying, and opened her own flight school. She left her career in aviation after marrying in 1934." 

"Stunt pilot Dorothy Hester was probably around age nineteen when she posed next to a plan for this photograph. Hester, from Milwaukie, Oregon, learned to fly at the Rankin School of Flying in Portland. She impressed Tex Rankin, and he taught her aerobatics. In June 1930, at age nineteen, she became the first woman to perform a stunt called an outside loop. Hester wowed audiences both in Oregon and at air shows around the nation, set world records for stunt flying, and opened her own flight school. She left her career in aviation after marrying in 1934." 

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago - Takashi Murakami

Since I’ve moved to Chicago and have been working in and learning about museums, I usually don’t visit museums and see special exhibits in a casual way. I really enjoy critically assessing what institutions are doing, and I appreciate having the background knowledge I do when approaching these experiences. Sometimes it’s nice to give myself permission to just enjoy a trip to a museum, though. The Murakami exhibit up at MCA Chicago was a great opportunity to do this. I still read the labels, considered the layout and design choices, and spent a good bit of time talking over the exhibit with my partner. At the end of the day, I approached this visit differently, and it was a nice break and an excellent visit.

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American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works Conference

I had the opportunity to go to my first professional conference this spring. The 45th annual American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works held its meeting in Chicago this year, so I lucked out and was able to go. I’d taken two courses in preventive conservation from George Washington University in the previous 9 months, so I was excited to see many of the principles we learned about put into practice by professional conservators. Additionally, with our assessment of the institutional film archives at the Art Institute, and our ongoing relationship in providing imaging for our conservation department, I knew I’d gain some knowledge I could put to use at work. The sessions I went to certainly did not disappoint.

There were a variety of tracts attendees could pick depending on their field of speciality, but I decided to pick and choose between a variety of disciplines: electronic media, photographic materials, sustainability, research and technical studies, and beyond treatment. Presentations in these sub-groups ranged from on-the-ground efforts to reduce waste in conservation labs to creative rehousing with limited resources to failure in high-profile projects. The theme of the conference was Innovation in Conservation and Collection Care, and I was pleased that the presentations didn’t revolve exclusively around technology, since innovation and tech are often conflated.

Of course, given the fact that I’m in a technology-dependent field within the museum world, I did attend a number of sessions which dealt directly with the intersection of conservation and tech. A number of presentations directly and indirectly addressed the important role photography plays in conservation. The treatment of the WWII bomber Flak Bait was a prime example of this: experimental techniques to retain the surface of the wing while rebuilding the structure meant pre-treatment photographs were vital for achieving the correct final color and finish to the treatment.

There were several other discussions about the evolving use of new and experimental uses of imaging. A trunk full of locked letters have led a team of researchers to investigate using CT scans to capture the contents of the interior without unfolding them. It is hoped that these images can then be digitally unfolded so they can be transcribed and read. There is also emerging technology in the way images are accessed and displayed. A platform is being created wherein images can be automatically associated with one another. This means that different captures (including drawings, print reproductions, technical imaging, etc) can be seamlessly layered to tell a more full story of an object over time. It also means that stitching can occur by means of one reference image with individual tiles automatically aligning. These possibilities are exciting for the world of cultural heritage imaging.

I was also really interested in the sessions I went to which touched on digital preservation. There is a growing awareness of the importance of assuring the longevity of all our digital stuff, especially given the volume of these materials and the often invisible nature of degradation. There were presentations on the challenges of migration and emulation, and the realities of facing a loss of data as a result of obsolete file types, platforms, and hardware. It was eye-opening learning about how much of this work is trial-and-error.

I think one of my biggest takeaways from this conference was the idea of growth from “failure.” I’d hesitate to even call some of the issues and challenges addressed “failures,” especially since presenters learned much from roadblocks. One such experience included a multi-million dollar, cross-governmental project spanning many years in which varnish removal revealed unexpected and large expanses of more modern in-painting, which then had to be addressed in a new treatment proposal and project. Another included a piece of digitization equipment used by only a handful of individuals with no manual, and expectations that this equipment would open doors for collections accessibility and community needs, all with minimal manpower. It was refreshing seeing how these professionals faced up to difficulties, both anticipated and unanticipated, and were able to speak to how they moved past barriers. Fortunately for us, they shared their experiences so we could learn from them.

Additionally, there were some heartening presentations on what individuals and organizations can do with extremely limited resources. One presenter talked about her national agency which handles the conservation needs of dozens of museums and institutions throughout the country. They face the reality of a varied climate, a lack of funding, and a multitude of projects which need addressing. She talked about getting creative while being realistic, and how important reusing and recycling materials, repurposing tools, and hand-making housing for collections items are. Prioritization is key with the work that they do, so they must think in terms of triage. I think this is the case for many, (perhaps the majority) of museums, archives, and libraries - it’s unlikely there’s dedicated conservators for their collections, and when there are it’s still a challenge to keep up with the workload. As such, it’s good to prioritize preventive conservation efforts, which can go a long way towards minimizing future interventive treatments.

I feel fortunate to have gone to this conference. I learned a lot, I had the chance to see old colleagues and my GWU professor, and I felt a renewed sense of excitement about working in museums. It’s easy to get bogged down by the less enjoyable aspects of work, so this was an excellent chance to step back and see things in greater context.

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Opening sessions 

 

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Words of wisdom about preventive conservation

 

 Imaging and conservation   

Imaging and conservation

 

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Working within limitations

Art Institute of Chicago - Helio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium

A coworker invited me to a tour of the exhibit Helio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium, led by the nephew of Oiticica. At the time, I’d not yet had a chance to fully explore the exhibit, but I was nice to check it out while gaining his insights about the work. It made me want to dive in on my own time that much more.

One point raised throughout our walk through the exhibit was the idea of intent vs. display. His art was and is meant to be experienced, so the traditional idea of a museum object being off-limits doesn’t sit well. There are pieces that visitors can enjoy as they were intended, walking through sand and pools of water, but even here there are limitations. And there are some works that the museum has chosen to display without interaction, motion sensors in place and pedestals and white lines employed to discourage touching.

We have been exploring the topic of artist intent in contemporary art in class, with more work in nontraditional media that aren’t archival. One important aspect of this is the emergence of comprehensive artist documentation and interviews, where possible, and when the artists will allow it. In this case, it is clear that Oiticica has created comprehensive guidelines for the work, but these wishes aren’t always reflected in the presentation of his work. As we looked at one of his 3D paintings, the idea of preservation and access came up, and I think this is a perfect example of it. It’s a hard balance to strike when museums are in the business of acting as collections stewards and artwork is interactive. It is clear that there needs to be good communication and a spirit of collaboration when working on exhibits like this one, to assure the museum is presenting the work as faithfully as possible, and that surviving family, friends, contemporaries or representatives have agency when decisions are made.

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Pieces like this one were meant to have participants walk through them, but this is not allowed in the museum setting. 

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Protest flag now encased and hanging on a wall. 

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Spaces that allowed for interaction. 

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Playing a game of pool by the parrots. 

Block Museum & National Museum of Mexican Art - Relevancy in Museums

I’ve had the chance to check out two art exhibits that have made me reflect on the idea of museums reacting to current events. There has been a steady debate for years about these institutions being relevant, about the role neutrality should play when curating exhibits and developing programs, or if neutrality is even possible. I think the idea of remaining neutral is itself taking a stance. While the subject of certain museums lend themselves to certain issues, I do think it is possible and even advisable for cultural heritage institutions to respond to what’s happening in the world more directly.

While on Northwestern’s campus, I visited the Block Museum of Art, and I spent the majority of my time in the exhibition If You Remember, I’ll Remember. From the website for the show, it is an: “invitation to reflect on the past while contemplating the present through works of art exploring themes of love, mourning, war, relocation, internment, resistance, and civil rights in 19th and 20th century North America… by engaging with historic documents, photographs, sound recordings, oral histories and objects of material culture drawn from institutional and informal archives, these artists highlight individuals’ stories or make connections to the their own histories… some make explicit links to events across time periods, while in others these associations are implicit.” The anniversaries of Executive Order 9066 and the Supreme Court’s decision in the Loving vs. Virginia case are both reflected in artwork in this show, as are other human rights issues, many of which we are still struggling with today. I appreciated the fact that the artwork featured so much primary source material, and was moved by the stories the artists helped to tell.

I also visited the National Museum of Mexican Art for the opening of Memoria Presente: An Artistic Journey. This exhibition is a celebration of the museum’s 30th anniversary, and it features artists working in a variety of media addressing a wide range of topics and issues. From the website for the show: “Since opening its doors in 1987, the Museum has showcased 220 exhibitions that exemplify a broad spectrum of artistic expressions from both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border.. the contemporary artists now creating artwork across our Midwest city continue to accurately reflect the vibrancy and diversity found within the Chicago-Mexican community… their poetic and political expressions carry on an extensive history of contemplative work and civic dialog in North America… the Museum’s philosophy of a Mexican culture “sin fronteras” (without borders) promotes art as a bridge between communities, while art education expands minds and breaks down barriers, even as it preserves cultural heritage.” The artwork on display tackled trans identity and acceptance in the community, violence in both Mexico and the United States, and mass incarceration.

In both shows, curators provided a platform for what many would deem to be inherently political work. In fact, the work was broadly about basic human rights, and the ongoing struggles that many communities face. Direct connections were made to current topics, so these shows weren’t just reflections of the past. I appreciated this about the shows, and I found the artwork to be engaging and refreshing. I hope that more museums work to incorporate issues we’re currently facing, it helps to provide connections and integrate these institutions.


Both exhibits are up through the summer, and I’d highly recommend a trip to see both.

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From If You Remember, I’ll Remember

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From Memoria Presente: An Artistic Journey

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National Public Housing Museum - Cataloging Kickoff

The second project I worked on last month was a cataloging kickoff at the National Public Housing Museum. The institution has new staff onboard, and there has been forward momentum building up in the collections program. PastPerfect was selected as the museum’s collections management system, so we started this project by getting to know the software.

I used PastPerfect while I was a photography intern at the Jewish Museum of Maryland back in college. Needless to say, the years that have passed have made me a bit rusty, so it was good to spend some time reacquainting myself with the program. We reviewed the company’s comprehensive documentation and walked through cataloging some of the 3D materials from the collection. This helped us to determine what fields would be most useful, and how  we could narrow the parameters of data entry to assure consistency.


Next steps include writing up guidelines and how-to guides, and onboarding interns. Much more work is yet to be done, including developing finding aid procedures as much of their collections are archival. It is satisfying to move forward and make progress, and I’m looking forward to being a part of this ongoing work.

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Rehousing some 3D materials in acid-free tissue: an upgrade from zippered plastic bags. 

Northwestern University & the American Indian Center

Last month featured two side projects which allowed me to work hands-on with collections materials. I really enjoy these opportunities, and while my schedule has been busy, I hope to have more chances to do this kind of work in the future. It’s helped to remind me why I love working in the cultural heritage field.

A former colleague from Northwestern introduced me to a professor working on a collaborative project with the American Indian Center here in Chicago. The organization is in the process of moving to a new location, so the university is teaming up to help assure temporary safe storage and perform an inventory of their collections materials. There are plans to digitize materials as they are inventoried, as well.

I visited campus to assess the materials, and to meet with the project lead to review the process. I had developed some initial workflow steps and a basic inventory form with data entry guidelines. Looking through the materials helped us to refine this documentation, and it was beneficial to walk through creating some dummy records for a few items. The goal is to set up a dedicated space for this work to happen, and to train both NU students and AIC community members so that the work can happen in teams. This will foster stronger bonds between both institutions, teaching those from NU about the AIC community, and assuring AIC ownership and consultation in the process. The hope is that the inventory can be developed into online portal to the collections, allowing public access.


I hope to continue to provide guidance as needed with this project, and I’m excited to hear updates as the work progresses. In spite of its decades-long history and important role in bringing together communities shifting from reservation to urban life, AIC isn’t well-known to many Chicagoans. Hopefully this project can help in part to make this important organization more visible.

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Art Institute of Chicago - Moholy-Nagy: Future Present

In December, I finished up the first of four online classes I’m taking through George Washington University. The certificate program is focused on museum collections management and care, and I’ve learned so much already. Since the program is restricted to those already working or volunteering in the field, it has meant that I often learn as much from my classmates as I do through the class itself. Some amazing stories have been shared about experiences in collections, and there have been opportunities for us to pool our knowledge to help in times of need.

The first class was focused on preventive conservation, including the primary agents of deterioration and the different material types commonly found in museums. With this knowledge, I was able to assess the National Public Housing Museum exhibit installed for the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and report on next steps for degrading institutional film archives at the Art Institute of Chicago. I’ve even seen my education at work while touring one of AIC’s recent exhibits - Moholy-Nagy: Future Present.

As a multimedia and experimental artist, Moholy-Nagy embraced new materials, including plastics. The materiality of different formulas produced desirable effects for the artist; unfortunately, many of these developing synthetics also degrade quickly. There were conservation notes next to some of the pieces, explaining research that was done and components that had to be replaced over the years. Many of the artworks that featured plastics also incorporated other material, including metal, paint, and wood, further complicating their care, storage, and display.

Understanding some of the basic principles of conservation makes me appreciate the work that goes into exhibits like this one that much more, and it makes me excited to learn more about conservation and collections management.