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.

Tenement Museum

I recently traveled to New York City, and I finally visited the Tenement Museum while there. This museum has been on my list to see for several years, especially since the National Public Housing Museum wants to follow a similar model of recreating apartments once their space is fully renovated. I opted to go on two of their tours, and I’m glad I did.

The living spaces above the ground-floor businesses originally shuttered due to code updates the landlord could not and did not want to fulfill. This means that the majority of the building was a time-capsule, abandoned for decades. This also means that basic updates had to be completed to open the space for tours, and there are still restrictions on how visitors see the space. There is no free roaming, and tours are limited to an hour. While I understand the practical limitations to the space, I still found myself frustrated by this highly-controlled experience. I like to take my time and absorb at my own rate.

Information was also repeated from one tour to another, particularly in the entry hallway, perhaps with the assumption that visitors usually only opt to take one tour at a time. This normally would not bother me, but with limited time, it felt like lost time.

On the whole, I did thoroughly enjoy my experience at the museum, though. I appreciate the fact that they retained the majority of surfaces as they found them when the building was first reopened. “Abandoned” apartments are showcased on each floor, so that visitors can get a sense of the scale of these rooms and the urban archaeology involved in a space like this one. In some rooms, they have uncovered over 40 layers of paint, and looking down revealed decades of changing flooring, from wood to linoleum.

The recreated apartments were also effective. Each was meant to replicate the experience of specific families that lived in the building. The objects in these spaces were collected from thrift stores, estate sales, flea markets and many other venues not usually used to fill a museum spaces. As such, they aren’t traditional collections materials, that individually tell a story. It is only collectively that they recreate the stories of the families who lived and the times in which they lived. It did feel a bit like stepping back in time, and it was done tastefully.

I had a great deal of questions after visiting - what their conservation efforts looked like while making the space visitable, what current conservation challenges they face with the space, how collections materials (from what I gathered, primarily objects recovered on the site) are handled and tracked differently than apartment objects, etc etc. I hope to be able to ask these questions to staff one day, and I also hope to be able to return once their new apartments open this summer. These feature more contemporary families, which will more closely align in time period with families NPHM will likely feature.

Art Institute of Chicago - Ayala Altarpiece

My position at the Art Institute of Chicago involves image preparation and delivery to both internal and external clients. Working with other departments, we supply collections, exhibit, and program documentation for a variety of purposes. We work most closely with publications, developing both online and print catalogs.

One such recent project involves post-conservation treatment documentation of the Ayala Altarpiece, a massive two panel piece created in 1396. In order to get the largest section out of the chapel in which it was originally housed, the largest panel had to be cut into three sections. It was reassembled and the spaces between the sections were filled and inpainted by conservators. Both panels have undergone full conservation in the past few years, which has meant the sections have had to be cut once again to navigate from the gallery to the conservation lab and to imaging. You can read more about this process on the Art Institute’s blog.

A publication is being developed which will feature the Ayala Altarpiece, but the deadline falls before the anticipated completion date for gallery re-installation for the panels. The three sections of the largest panel have been individually documented after conservation was finished, but our department will not have the opportunity to photograph the inpainting done to fill the sections prior to the print date. I have been tasked with digitally filling the gaps, following pre-treatment documentation from its prior gallery installation. This falls outside my normal editing work, and it was a fun challenge. It’s been years since I’ve drawn or painted, so I had to brush up on my skills to complete the panel, especially in areas which featured figures and detailed decorative elements.

We will do overall imaging once the panels are fully installed and inpainted, which will be the ultimate and true collections documentation for the altarpiece. But for now, this digitally stitched image will have to suffice for immediate needs.

A quick view of some of the steps involved with editing the altarpiece.

A quick view of some of the steps involved with editing the altarpiece.

Detail, before

Detail, before

Detail, after

Detail, after

Field Museum of Natural History - Restoring Earth

A group of friends and I visited the Field Museum together - it was a nice departure from our normal social activities. I tend to be a thorough, methodical museum visitor, but it’s a nice change of pace to approach these spaces more casually. I also really enjoy sharing the experience with others, it’s fun to share odd discoveries and find the most unusual-looking creature together.

A friend who previously worked at the museum encouraged the group to visit one of their newest exhibitions, which focuses on the conservation work the institutions’ scientists are actively doing: Abbott Hall of Conservation Restoring Earth. While I love the traditional dioramas, this exhibit felt much more contemporary, and the design itself matched the important work teams are doing from in landscapes from Peru to Cuba to Chicago. I was impressed in particular by a video showing off the collections storage, and how these materials contribute to our understanding of ecosystems and cultures across the globe. I welcome this direct approach museums can take to connect visitors to the institution itself and its connection to the outside world.

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Museum of Contemporary Art - Mastry

I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to see Kerry James Marshall’s survey Mastry at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. His work is incredible, and seeing so many pieces together, telling the diverse stories of African Americans in this country was moving. I was encouraged, too, to see a wide variety of individuals visiting the exhibit: young and old, all races and ethnicities. Too often I only see a specific type visiting museums; this exhibit should teach museums a lesson to make their spaces more inclusive by including more voices in what is presented. There was a nod to this in the introductory wall panel:

“For the past thirty-six years, Kerry James Marshall has been driven by a mission to address the absence of black artists and subjects in the history of art. Like many African Americans born during the civil rights movement, Marshall’s worldview and artistic practice have been shaped by questions of racial representation. He has committed to filling the walls of museums with black figures, depicting black people almost exclusively and telling stories about black lives and history on a grand scale.

To compete with the great artists from past centuries while expanding the possibilities of representation, Marshall has methodically mastered a wide range of techniques and remixed almost every tradition of painting from the past 500 years. He takes on many of the genres of art - including history painting, landscape, portraiture, and abstraction - carrying the tradition of painting into the present. To do this, he incorporates references to history, pop culture, contemporary life, and his hometown Chicago. He also reenvisions how African Americans are depicted, mixing black pigments to create his own set of tones for the skin and features of his subjects. In his richly detailed paintings - complex, beautiful, and relevant to the challenges of our time - it pays to look, look closely, and look again.”

The show is now traveling, I hope many more have a chance to connect with Marshall’s work.

 

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Chicago Architecture Foundation - Open House 2016

Another great year of visiting interesting sites! This year we covered locations from Back of the Yards, the Loop, and UIC. These are a few phone shots, proper photos will be posted on my site soon. 

 

Union Station

Union Station

Maybe less scenic part of the station

Maybe less scenic part of the station

Palmer Printing

Palmer Printing

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River City

River City

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Growing Power Iron Street Farm

Growing Power Iron Street Farm

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Testa Produce

Testa Produce

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UIC's brutalist campus

UIC's brutalist campus

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Fine Arts Building

Fine Arts Building

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Roosevelt University Auditorium Building

Roosevelt University Auditorium Building

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Berlin's German Museum of Technology

We also visited the German Museum of Technology in Berlin. Industry, infrastructure, and transportation turned out to be the inadvertent theme of our trip. There was limited text in English, so I decided to enjoy the photographic opportunities in the space. These are a few shots I took with my phone, many more were taken with my DSLR.

 

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